Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
Don't go looking for the compact discs of country singer Toby Keith and jazz player Ellis Marsalis, Jr., in the same section of a music megastore. Don't expect to find a concert venue where downtown poet Patti Smith will share the stage with uptown pianoman Billy Joel. And don't even imagine that you will be able to tune in that magic radio frequency where Neil Diamond's croons, Pearl Jam's rocks and Van Dyke Parks explore the musical byways of Americana.
An examination of the CD collections of most Americans will still reveal the sort of diverse tastes that find room for the acoustic folk rock of the Indigo Girls, the alternative rock of Michael Stipe and REM, and the classic rock of Don Henley and the Eagles. But an increasingly corporate and commercial media rejects this very American penchant for diversity in favor of tightly formatted radio stations, lowest-common-denominator marketing strategies and the sort of homogenized and sanitized music that sounds as if it was created by a poll or a focus group -- as opposed to an artist.
Musicians of all stripes are starting to recognize that the galloping consolidation of American media -- especially in radio, where most Americans were first introduced to their favorite songs -- has reduced the ability of recording artists to take the risks that reshape our consciousness, to explore new ideas and new sounds and, ultimately, to be heard. Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed barriers to the number of radio stations one media conglomerate could own, the largest of these conglomerates -- Texas-based Clear Channel -- has grabbed more than 1,200 stations and shaped a musical mix characterized by the homogenization of playlists, the death of programming diversity, less local programming, reduced public access to the airwaves and rapidly declining public satisfaction with radio and the music it plays.
"There are clear lessons from the dramatic consolidation of ownership in the radio industry following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and how it has impacted the historic goals of localism, competition and diversity," says Ann Chaitovitz, Director of Sound Recordings at The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). And the lessons are not good for American music or American musicians.
That's why now, as the five members of the Federal Communications Commission consider a series of rule changes that would open the door to more consolidation, commercialism, corporatism and corruption, Keith, Marsalis, Smith, Joel, Diamond, Stipe, Henley, Parks, Pearl Jam and the Indigo Girls have joined two dozen other prominent artists to sign a letter that asks the FCC to halt the rush to enact six major rules changes by early June.
The musicians are urging FCC chair Michael Powell to provide Congress and citizens a full opportunity to review proposed changes of media ownership rules before they are enacted. In addition, they make the case that basic rules to control against monopolies, hyper-commercialism and the loss of local content are both needed and broadly supported by Americans. "We believe the record demonstrates both the value of existing media ownership rules and the dangers in permitting widespread consolidation of ownership," the letter declares. "We also believe the FCC has been negligent in listening to important stakeholder groups, like musicians, recording artists and radio professionals, to ensure their testimony is on the record."
The letter from some of the best-known musicians in the U.S. is the latest sign of the broad opposition that rule changes being considered by the FCC -- which would allow one company to own newspapers, television and radio in the same town, and which would allow more consolidation of media ownership on the local and national levels.
"The Commission is considering possible changes to broadcast ownership rules which were put in place by Congress to ensure that the public would have access to a wide range of news, information, and programming, as well as diverse political views. Repeal or significant modification of these rules would likely open the door to numerous mergers that could reduce competition and diversity in the media. A final rule, significantly altering media ownership limits, could have serious ramifications for robust public debate and the marketplace of ideas," read a recent letter from leaders of Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other groups that urged Powell to open up the process. "The mass media provide Americans the information and news they need to participate fully in our democratic society. If media ownership rules are seriously weakened, one company in a town could control the most popular newspaper, TV station, and possibly even a cable system giving it dominant influence over the content and slant of local news. Such a move would reduce the diversity of cultural and political discussion in a community."
Musicians are especially worried about the loss of cultural diversity -- and the practical impact it has on their ability to reach audiences that were once available to them. "As artists, we recognize the important role that radio and other media play in the vitality of the American culture," says Henley. "It is outrageous that many citizens are not even aware these changes are being debated. To a large extent, this is because the FCC leadership has not fully engaged the public. But what frightens me more is the complete absence of any network coverage of this issue. The broadcast interests who clearly stand to benefit from further consolidation have seemingly absolved themselves of their responsibility to cover this proceeding as a news story. If this is the sort of biased coverage we get now I can't imagine what will pass as journalism in the next phase of our increasingly consolidated media future."
Among the other musicians joining Henley in signing the letter are Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Tim McGraw, Joan Osborne, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Jennifer Warnes, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Fleerwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, and Ray Manzarek of Doors fame.
Army Secretary Thomas White, the Enron executive who parlayed his skills at running private companies into bankruptcy into an important-sounding position in the Bush Administration, has stepped down. The official administration spin -- which was only slightly less credible than a press briefing from the former Iraqi Information Minister -- claimed that White quit. The reality was that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who thought of White as little more than a lobbyist for defense contractors promoting unnecessary investment in cumbersome weapons such as the canceled Crusader artillery system, fired the Army Secretary.
No one should mourn White's departure. His presence in the administration was Exhibit A for the case that the Bush team had bartered off positions of authority to hacks who saw government "service" as a means to enrich their corporate comrades -- and, ultimately, themselves.
There is one reason to hold back on celebrating White's departure, however. The primary effect of his exit will be to solidify Rumsfeld's control over all of the country's military affairs. With White out, and with the coming retirement of General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff with whom Rumsfeld and his aides clashed, the Defense Secretary will be well positioned to nominate loyalists for the Army's top civilian position and the senior military slot.
For those who worry that Rumsfeld might be just a bit too full of himself, the notion of a Defense Secretary surrounded by yes-men should be a sobering one.
Rick Santorum is a bigot. And, like others bigots before him, he seeks to promote his views be claiming the American people face "threats" that do not exist.
Santorum, the Pennsylvanian who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, is blatant about his bigotry. Unlike former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who got in trouble for praising Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948, Santorum was talking about the here and now when he objected to efforts to strike down sodomy laws because he opposes lifting criminal sanctions against gay and lesbian relationships. To this senator's view, gays and lesbians who engage in consensual, monogomous and loving relationships "undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family."
Just as Santorum is blatant about his bigotry, he is equally blatant in his fearmongering, arguing that, "(If) the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does."
Santorum told an Associated Press reporter that respecting the rights of adult citizens to engage in loving, respectful relationships is wrong because such a stance "destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family."
Wrong as he may be, Santorum has a right to his point of view -- just as people have a right to believe in trickle-down economics and other dangerous fallacies. But Santorum has no right to have his retrograde viewpoints treated with respect. To do so would be to legitimize the bigotry that has eaten away at his ability to recognize -- or, at least, respect -- reality.
Charges that striking down laws that criminalize same-sex relationships will eliminate restrictions on incest and polygamy used to heard quite frequently from politicians who sought votes by pitting groups against one another. But even on the right-wing of the political spectrum, such talk has become less common in recent years. Why? Because states across the country have been striking down sodomy laws for more than 40 years, without weakening laws against incest and polygamy.
Twenty-six states have repealed sodomy laws since Illinois began the trend in 1962. The courts have struck down sodomy laws in nine more states.
More than two dozen states have passed laws barring different forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians since Wisconsin did so in 1982. Hundreds of communities have done the same. The courts have upheld these moves, while continuing to recoginize the ability of states and communities to impose sanctions against incest, polygamy and other behaviors on Santorum's list.
So the senator is wrong. And, because of his prominent position and history of dealing with social issues as the fair-haired boy of the Republican right, it is fair to assume that he knows better. So it is certainly reasonable to assume that Santorum is motivated not by genuine concern about the spread of polygamy but by his bigotry against lesbians and gays.
Fair enough. There are plenty of bigots in politics. And, in this democracy, voters are permitted to elect them.
However, voters are also permitted to ask whether Santorum speaks for the Republican Party. He is, after all, the chair of the party's caucus in the upper house of the Congress.
Two prominent Republican moderates have been appropriately critical of Santorum. "Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society, and I believe Senator Santorum's unfortunate remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity," says Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, says that, "I thought his choice of comparisons was unfortunate and the premise that the right of privacy does not exist -- just plain wrong. Senator Santorum's views are not held by this Republican and many others in our party."
But is Chafee right? Is Santorum the one who stands outside the GOP mainstream? So far, the nation's leading Republican is refusing to comment on the Santorum flap. The Bush White House is officially silent. Most leading Republicans in Congress have also gone uncharacteristically mum -- though, in some cases, they are actually defending Santorum. The man who replaced Lott, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has gone so far as to claim that Santorum is "a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party."
So where does the Grand Old Party stand? Exactly how big is the big tent? The moment demands some clarification, and Republicans have a model for how to approach such a circumstance.
When Trent Lott made statements that seemed to suggest a sympathy for the racist bigotries of the 1940s, President Bush and his aides were quick to distance themselves from that senator's sentiments. So too were a number of prominent conservative Republicans in the Senate. Bush and other party leaders ought to do the same with regard to Santorum, unless, of course, they share his point of view.
"America has entered one of its periods of historical madness," argues author John Le Carré, who suggests that the current drive by conservatives in Congress and their media allies to search out and destroy dissent is "worse than McCarthyism." That may sound extreme to some, but it certainly must ring true for Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, whose mild criticism of President Bush in the days before the war with Iraq began has made the group target No. 1 for the Elite Republican Guardians of patriotic propriety.
After Maines, a native of Lubbock, told a crowd at a London Dixie Chicks show that "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," South Carolina legislators passed a bill declaring those words to be "unpatriotic," disc jockeys organized rallies at which tractors were used to destroy Dixie Chicks CDs, and radio stations across the south barred songs by the groups. Though officials of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that controls more than 1,200 radio stations across the US denied that they had issued a network-wide ban order, Clear Channel's country and pop music stations were among the first to declare themselves "Chicks Free." And the chattering class of conservative talk-radio and talk-TV piled on with calls for boycotts of the group's upcoming concert tour.
With the experience of the Dixie Chicks providing a cautionary tale--and with high-profile actors who have expressed antiwar views, such as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo, being branded "casting couch Bolsheviks" and worse--there was a clear signal coming from the entertainment industry in general, and the music industry in particular, about what happens when artists speak out. While outspoken groups and individual performers such as the Beastie Boys, System of the Down, REM, Lenny Kravitz, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Zack de la Rocha dared to speak out musically, radio playlists have tended increasingly to feature Bush Administration-friendly songs like Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgetten" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith--who criticizes Maines as a "big mouth." Madonna remade what had been described as an antiwar video for her new single, "American Life," because she said, "I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video." And, against the pressure to make music conform to the conservative agenda of the Bush Administration, there has been a whole lot of silence from most of the music industry's biggest names.
But Bruce Springsteen is not one to let his voice be frozen out by a free speech chill. Springsteen featured a roaring version of Edwin Starr's anti-war hit, "War (What Is It Good For?)," during March shows in the U.S. and Australia; at a Melbourne show during the first days of the war, he told the crowd between performances of the songs "My City of Ruins" and "Land Of Hope and Dreams" that: "We pray for the safety of our sons and daughters, innocent sons and daughters and innocent Iraqi civilians." Now, the man whose song "Born in the USA" remains an anthem for patriots of many stripes--including those who see dissent as the truest expression of Americanism--has let rip with a powerful defense of the Dixie Chicks and artistic free speech.
"The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they're terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American," Springsteen said in a statement that was set to be posted today on the www.brucespringsteen.net website.
"The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about--namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home," added Springtseen, whose 2002 album The Rising, a groundbreaking rumination on September 11th and its aftermath, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and has been certified double platinum.
"I don't know what happens next," Springsteen said of America's current moment, "but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support."
As usual, Springsteen has his finger closer to the pulse of America than the ranting right and those over-cautious celebrities who have shied away from the controversy. Of the 59 shows on the upcoming Dixie Chicks tour of major arenas, 53 have already sold out and the remainder are on the verge of being fully booked.
In 1917, at the height of World War I, Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette caused quite a stir when he suggested that one of the best ways to support the US troops fighting in Europe was to expose and challenge American corporations that engage in all forms of war profiteering. Even as attention is focused abroad on battles still raging, La Follette said, it is important to remain ever mindful "that there are enemies of democracy in the homeland."
"These," the Senator continued, "are the powers of special privilege that take advantage of the opportunity which war affords to more firmly entrench themselves in their control of government and industry. These interests are amassing enormous fortunes out of the world's misery."
More than 85 years later, America finds itself embedded in a very different conflict, yet La Follette's words still ring true. No matter what Americans think about the Bush Administration's preemptive invasion of Iraq, there should be broad agreement on the need to ensure that corporations do not turn the war and its aftermath into a bonanza for their bottom lines and a boondoggle for US taxpayers. In other words: Now that the statues of Saddam Hussein have been toppled, it is time to topple the war profiteers. But where to begin?
Recent days have brought news of the awarding of a contract worth up to $680 million to rebuild Iraqi roads, schools, sewers and hospitals damaged in the war. Bechtel, which is jokingly referred to in business circles as Bushtel, donated $1.3 million to political candidates during the last two election cycles -- with most of it going into the coffers of Republican campaigns, including the 2000 Bush for President effort. Surely, Bechtel is an attractive target for a Congressional investigation of war profiteering--like those begun after World War I and during World War II.
But if Congress is going to get serious about war profiteering, there is no better place to begin than the Texas-based Halliburton Corp. energy conglomerate that Vice-President Dick Cheney once headed. According to a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers released this week, a Pentagon contract given without competition to a Halliburton subsidiary to fight oil well fires in Iraq is worth as much as $7 billion over two years.
The contract allows Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, to collect as much as a 7 percent profit. That could amount to $490 million.
Cheney, who collected more than $33 million in compensation from Halliburton when he quit to become vice president--and who still receives deferred compensation from the company of about $180,000 a year--says that he has not intervened on behalf of his old company. And National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton says, "The White House has no role in selecting individual contractors."
But Kellogg Brown & Root has had quite a run of luck since the Bush Administration took over. The federal government and the Pentagon have paid the firm tens of millions of dollars to build cells for detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. And the company is earning hundreds of millions as the exclusive logistics supplier for the Navy and the Army, providing services like cooking, construction, power generation and fuel transportation. The best accounting so far available suggests that, between October 2000 and March 2002, the government awarded Kellogg Brown & Root work worth more than $624 million.
Two senior members of the US House--Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and John Dingell, D-Mich.--have asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to review contracts received over the last two years by Halliburton and its subsidiaries. "The ties between the vice president and Halliburton have raised concerns about whether the company has received favorable treatment from the Administration," Waxman and Dingell bluntly declared in their letter to the GAO.
The investigation of Halliburton should coincide with congressional action to tighten procedures for awarding government contracts and with steps to ensure that corporations are prevented from profiteering in wartime or its aftermath--as in World War II, when the chair of the Senate's Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program referred to war profiteering as "treason." That Senator was Harry Truman.
Suppose rioters were wrecking an American city, looting its hospitals and destroying one of the greatest museums in the world.And imagine if, as this happened, one of the nation's most prominent liberal excused the violence by saying, "Stuff happens," and then, when pressed, put a happy face on the looting by saying, "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes."
Would it take even 10 minutes for conservatives in Congress and the media to call for the head of the liberal official? How loudly would Rush Limbaugh condemn her irresponsibility? How many times would Sean Hannity blame her for the continued violence? Would Bill O'Reilly demand that the offending official appear to defend herself on Fox TV? Would House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, propose a congressional investigation, removal of the liberal leader, perhaps even criminal prosecution?
No one who has witnessed the faux patriotic policing of the discourse in recent weeks by America's conservative political and media elites could possibly doubt that such a response to rioting would send the yammering yahoos of the right into a frenzy of finger-pointing.
Yet when rioters were tearing up the U.S.-controlled city of Baghdad last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded by saying, "Stuff happens." Then, echoing statements of other Bush administration apparatchiks, Rumsfeld described the looting of the city as an "untidy" display of freedom. In response to questions about the first signs of chaos in the streets of Baghdad, the Secretary of Defense told Americans that they were seeing "a spontaneous outburst of the oppressed Iraqi people..."
On the day that Rumsfeld was declaring on live television that "free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes," rioters looted the Yarmouk Hospital, carting away not just beds, sheets and medicines but toilets and the ultrasound scanners. They ransacked the ministries of education, agriculture, planning, trade industry and information; and stripped the 10-story Foreign Ministry building down to its carpets. Then they carried the carpets out to waiting trucks. They emptied the shops on main retail streets. And they took -- or destroyed -- 170,000 items from Iraq's National Museum, which had housed a priceless collection of masterpieces and memorabilia dating back across human history from the time of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumarians, the Medes, the Greeks and the Persians.
Marble carvings, stone tablets, clay pots and tablets containing some of the earliest known examples of writing were destroyed or stolen. The pillaging of the Baghdad museum represented far more than an Iraqi loss. John Russell, an archeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, described the destruction as a blow to "the world's human history." Noting that the museum's collection included some of the earliest examples of mathematics and some of the first legal codes ever written, the British Museum's Dominique Collon described the damage in Baghdad as "truly a world heritage loss."
Items that survived 7,000 years of human history were lost last week in a city controlled by forces under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld. Yet Rumsfeld refused to take any responsibility. "We didn't allow it," he said. "It happened."
But did it have to happen?
Thousands of the finest soldiers in the world were in and around Baghdad. They could have protected government buildings, hospitals and the world's great archeological and historical treasures. (U.S. Defense Department officials had, months ago, promised top archaeologists from around the world that such protection would be provided at the museum.) And everyone agrees they would have had little trouble preventing the looting of key buildings. "The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened," said Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director.
That U.S. troops, many of whom were within blocks of the museum, were not given orders to protect is stunning to the world's great archeologists. "The Baghdad museum is the equivalent of the Cairo Museum," said University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson. "It would be like having American soldiers 200 feet outside the Cairo museum watching people carry away treasures from King Tut's tomb or carting away mummies."
But the troops were assigned to other tasks: such as pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein for the TV cameras and defending the building that houses the Iraqi Ministry of, you guessed it, Oil. (A March 25 release from the Marines described securing Iraq's oil producing regions as "one of the first objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom," and Rumsfeld has acknowledged at press conferences that securing oil wells was a top priority for the military -- inspiring a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion that read: "137 More Oil Wells Liberated for Democracy.")While the Ministry of Oil was protected, the National Museum was left to the looters.
When U.S. and allied troops took charge of the great cities of Europe during World War II, they proudly defended museums and other cultural institutions. They could have done the same in Baghdad. And they would have, had a signal come from the Pentagon.But the boss at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who had promised to teach the Iraqi people how to live in freedom, was too busy explaining that rioting and looting are what free people are free to do.
A year ago this spring, I spent several days in Minnesota trailing US Sen. Paul Wellstone as he campaigned for a third term. Wellstone, the most progressive Democrat in the Senate, was battling against a full-scale assault from the Bush White House and its chosen candidate, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican, liberal-turned-conservative, activist-turned-insider, had a reputation as one of the most egregious political hustlers the state had ever seen. There were plenty of sordid tales to be told about the man White House political czar Karl Rove was packaging as the candidate of conservative principles, patriotism and traditional family values. Garrison Keillor, the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," referred to Coleman as "this cheap fraud" and, echoing the sentiments of a lot of in-the-know Minnesotans, said of Coleman's political ascension: "To accept it and grin and shake the son of a bitch's hand is to ignore what cannot be ignored if you want your grandchildren to grow up in a country like the one that nurtured and inspired you."
I asked Wellstone whether he thought that, considering Coleman's high sleaze factor, this intense Senate race might eventually focus on the personal and political foibles of the Republican nominee. "I won't let that happen," Wellstone said, with the warm drawl that his voice took on after a long day of campaigning. "Norm Coleman and I disagree enough on the issues. And I disagree with the Bush White House on the issues. I wouldn't want to win a race that focused on Norm's personality or his style. That's not right. Minnesota deserves better."
Wellstone was so determined to avoid cheap shots at Coleman that, even in private conversations, he refused to reflect on his opponent's foibles.
Minnesotans recognized Wellstone's grace and dignity, and polls suggested that they were preparing to re-elect him by a wide margin when a plane crash just days before the election killed the senator and his wife, Sheila, as well as their daughter, Marcia, and five others. The grief, confusion and political churn of the days following Wellstone's death created an opening that Coleman would not otherwise have had, and he won the Senate seat -- at least in part because he promised to honor his late opponent's legacy and hailed Wellstone as a "selfless public servant who embodied the best of Minnesota."
Now that he is settled in the Senate, however, Coleman's true stripes are showing. And it has become clear that, in addition to abandoning Wellstone's political principles, Coleman has also rejected his predecessor's reticence about taking political cheap shots at foes -- living or dead.
During an interview with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week, Coleman waved an unlit cigar in the air and declared: "To be very blunt and God watch over Paul's soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone," Coleman told the reporter. "Just about on every issue."
The reporter offered Coleman a chance to redeem himself by asking about the remaining 1 percent. But Coleman didn't bite. Instead, he complained about Wellstone's political independence. "Wellstone was never with the president," explained Coleman, referring to the Democrat's refusal to go along with the Bush administration's agenda. "I could be with the president most of the time."
The new senator even found time to dismiss the suggestion from some of Wellstone's grieving supporters that his replacement might want to maintain some of his predecessor's legacy. "They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away," Coleman said of Wellstone backers. "All you can do is say, ‘Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do and thank God I have a chance to be here.'"
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., described Coleman's remarks as inappropriate, disrespectful and "an unnecessary attack on a leader our state continues to mourn." She demanded an apology, as did 100 demonstrators who gathered outside Coleman's St. Paul office. Martha Bellou, one of the demonstrators, summed the mood up when she referred to Coleman "defaming the dead" and allowed as how, "Even for Norm this is a new low."
After first refusing to apologize, Coleman grudgingly acknowledged: "The people of Minnesota should expect more from this senator."
At least Norm Coleman was right about that.
Ever since US forces marched into Iraq, conservatives in Congress and their media stenographers have been at war with Americans who fail to read from the Bush Administration's political script.
US Sen Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, was ranting the other day about charging former MSNBC correspondent Peter Arnett with "treason," after the always controversial journalist gave a ill-conceived yet thoroughly inconsequential interview to Iraqi television. Then, last Friday, 104 Republican members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter demanding that Columbia University fire an assistant professor of anthropology whose extreme -- if not extremely significant -- statements against the US war had made him a favorite target of the New York Post's patriotism police.
Members of Congress, who should be performing their constitutionally-mandated advice and consent duties with regard to the war and its aftermath, are instead asking: "Would you like a witchhunt with those Freedom Fries?" By and large, the Republican torch bearers get points from their constituents and are written off as yahoos by everyone else. But there is a political point to this demonization of dissent and discourse. And it has been evident in the attempts to discredit US Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has emerged as something of a frontrunner in the race for his party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Kerry is not exactly a threatening figure. Indeed, the Massachusetts senator is less than the sum of his parts. He is reasonably smart, reasonably liberal, reasonably handsome and possessed of a distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War. This ought to make him a dream candidate for Democrats who are still casting about for an alternative to George W. Bush, who has no record of distinguished service -- in times of war, or peace. But Kerry tends to waffle on big issues -- he raised great questions about granting Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate sweeping new free-trade agreements, yet he voted for legislation authorizing Fast Track; he has expressed concern about threats to civil liberties, yet he voted for the draconian USA Patriot Act. He seemed to object to Bush's rush to war with Iraq, yet he voted for the October resolution that continues to provide the White House with a flimsy excuse for launching a preemptive war against a sovereign state.
So why are conservatives all hot and bothered about Kerry?
During a discussion at the town library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Kerry was campaigning in anticipation of next year's first-in-the-nation primary, the senator let loose with a comment that echoed posters, bumper stickers, campaign pins, reasonable magazine commentaries and casual comments heard across the United States in recent months. Speaking of Bush's inept approach to international relations in advance of the current war, Kerry said, "Regardless of how successful the United States is in waging war against Iraq, it will take a new president to rebuild the country's damaged relationships with the rest of the world," Kerry told the overflow crowd. "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States."
Turning the Bush Administration's rhetoric about "regime change" around on the White House has obvious rhetorical appeal -- especially among grassroots Democrats. The word "regime" generally refers to a government that lacks credibility because of how it came to power or how it exercises its authority. That description is one that many Democrats would apply to the Bush Administration. After all, George W. Bush failed to win the popular vote in 2000 and only assumed the presidency after the Florida recount debacle and a controversial intervention by a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court. Since they swept into Washington, the Bush team has been rocked by scandals linking key administration figures to corporate corruption, official secrecy, power grabs, assaults on Constitutionally-protected freedoms and abuses of the checks and balances system.
Kerry was not reading out a detailed indictment of the Bush Administration. Rather, he was discussing the challenge of repairing the US image abroad in the aftermath of what Kerry described as Bush's ''end-run around the UN.'' "I don't think (other nations are) going to trust this president, no matter what,'' Kerry explained. ''I believe it deeply, that it will take a new president of the United States, declaring a new day for our relationship with the world, to clear the air and turn a new page on American history.''
Coming in this context, Kerry's "regime change" was precisely the sort of savvy, somewhat-serious, somewhat lighthearted reference that a candidate who is in touch with his audience would offer. It certainly did not put Kerry, who is anything but adventurous, outside the circle of accepted discourse.
But this did not prevent conservative "message" teams, talk radio ranters and Republican members of Congress from spinning the senator's statement into a political firestorm that may well end up aiding Kerry's candidacy -- indeed, Kerry said it was a "pleasure" to be attacked by the chair of the Congressional Yahoo Caucus, House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who failed to serve in Vietnam but seldom fails to question the patriotism of Democrats who did wear the country's uniform. Delay can usually be counted on to embarrass himself and the House. But in the dispute over Kerry's remarks, Delay was not the source of the most ridiculously partisan statement. That came from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who said, "With our commander-in-chief facing a deadly conflict overseas, Senator Kerry's comments certainly cause one to wonder whether he has the sensitivity and the judgment commensurate with the office he seeks."
Frist seems to forget that US troops are the ones who are marching into a deadly conflict - just as Kerry did in Vietnam. President Bush, who like Frist successfully avoided serving in Vietnam, will not be hearing the sound of bullets any time soon. And it is absurd to suggest that the war effort could be threatened in any way by the suggestion that Americans may decide in 2004 to replace Bush with someone who has a little more military experience.
Ironically, Frist's attack on his Senate colleague contained the perfect rejoinder to the GOP criticism of Kerry. "Free and open discourse is one thing," Frist said, "but petty, partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain are highly inappropriate at a time when American men and women are in harm's way." Frist's silly grumbling about Kerry's sensitivity and judgment provides an exceptional example of what "petty, partisan insults launched for personal political gain" sound like.
Americans who have tried to get the Bush Administration to listen to their concerns regarding war with Iraq will sympathize with the millions of British citizens who have expressed anger at Prime Minister Tony Blair's willingness to bend to the foreign policy whims of George W. Bush's White House. At times, Blair and his aides are so pliant that they appear no more conscious or competent than members of the US Congress.
But fair is fair. Now that Blair's crew has gone along with the Bush Administration's war with Iraq, it is only reasonable that the American president and his aides accept the wisdom of the British with regards to the expansion of the war.
After Donald Rumsfeld, started ranting about Syria last week, international analysts -- along with astute domestic observers of the Bush team -- began to worry about whether this administration is already looking for another war to fight. That's an understandable concern, as the president himself has identified Iran and North Korea as members with Iraq of an "axis of evil." With the administration's neo-conservative gurus preaching a mantra of global governance that would have the US invading countries on a regular basis, it doesn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to foresee an ever widening war in the Middle East -- and beyond.
But the British, who have broken with most of the rest of the world to join the US invasion of Iraq, are not enthusiastic about starting a fight with Syria. Or Iran. Or any of the other countries that are in the sites of Bush, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the desk warriors in Washington.
After Rumsfeld ramped up the rhetoric with regards to Syria, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw announced that his country would have "nothing whatever" to do with military action against Syria -- a country with which Straw said the British had "worked hard to try to improve relations." Blair's foreign affairs aide also ruled out a war with Iran, another country that Washington has targeted for verbal assaults.
"Iran is an emerging democracy and there would be no case whatsoever for taking any kind of (military) action (against it)," Straw said.
The Bush Administration does not have a taste for genuine international partnerships where both countries have a place in policy making -- as the French learned when they raised questions about the president's rush to war. But the "special relationship" between the US and Britain may cause some in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon to pay attention to Jack Straw and the British government.
A great many Americans understand that it would be fiscal, political and practical madness to broaden the Iraq war into a regional struggle. But few Americans expect the president to listen to his fellow citizens on this question, as the Bush Administration has shown little respect for the demands of democracy -- or the Constitution. Thus, the best hope for wisdom to win out over presidential whim may rest with the prospect that a sense of loyalty on the part of Bush, Rumsfeld and their team to the administration's British allies will lead some in Washington to hear Jack Straw say "no."
In the old Soviet bloc states, the official line of the ruling elites did not always come from the government itself. Often it was delivered by journalists who would amplify the party line with "independent" analysis and comment.
Thus, while officials dealt in vapid generalities about programs for the people, the opinion "commissars" would offer rigid defenses of the party line and demonize those who expressed even the slightest doubts.
Washington in 2003 is certainly different from Bucharest in 1953. But Americans seeking to get a flavor of the old inside-outside strategy of matching official "tolerance" for dialogue with semi-official ranting about the dangers of dissent need look no further than William Kristol's recent appearances on the Fox News Channel programs.
Kristol, the editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, is a charming, reasonably soft-spoken figure who has a good deal of influence in the Bush White House and a passionate faith in the neo-conservative fantasy that people around the world wish their countries would be invaded. Of late, Kristol has been spinning harder than White House spokesman Ari Fleischer -- pulling out all the stops in hopes of convincing Americans that the war in Iraq is going as it should and that questioners of the war's wisdom or prosecution are, at best, irrational.
Though he is a magazine editor, Kristol was quicker than Fleischer to wag a finger at reporters who might question why the war is not quite the "cakewalk" that neo-conservative commentators and Vice President Dick Cheney predicted. Defending the administration, Kristol grumbled during a Fox appearance last week that, "They're doing fine, and remember the media does not represent the country. I want to repeat, there is no empirical evidence today that Americans are impatient for the end of this war."
Readers of the Weekly Standard got an extended version of Kristol's remarks. "Here's the good news about the American people: They're not affected by the silly mood swings of much of the media," he explained. "Americans outside newsrooms and TV studios understand that wars are often difficult and usually unpredictable."
If Mr. Kristol were to leave the comfortable confines of the Washington Beltway, he might be surprised to learn that a lot of Americans actually believed the pre-war spin of the Bush administration and neo-conservative commentators about how Iraqis were anxiously awaiting invasion, er, liberation.
Even on a short trip to America, Kristol would find plenty of empirical evidence of impatience, uncertainty, anger and questioning as regards the progress of this war. I've spent the past few days at country crossroads, in small towns and in big cities across the upper Midwest and I have heard intense discussions about this war's unexpected and troubling turns, about whether the Bush administration and its neo-conservative cheerleaders presented an "unrealistic" picture of what was coming, and about whether the best way to support the troops might be to bring them home.
The discussions on Fox News' "Special Report" and CNN's "News Night" may still be on the silly side. But the conversations in church basements in places like Viroqua, Wisconsin, have turned serious. "Did they really not know what to expect in Iraq, or did they just lie to us?" asked a teacher, summing up a line of questioning and comment I heard again and again.
Some of this shift in sentiment is captured in polling. An analysis by MSNBC of a survey conducted for that network over the weekend suggests that "while Americans support the president, the poll also found a growing unease with the progress of the war against Iraq. Nine percent of those surveyed said the war was proceeding better than expected, a drop from a poll conducted March 23, in which 25 percent expressed optimism with the war's prosecution. Conversely, 20 percent said the war was going worse than expected, a 100 percent increase from the 10 percent who expressed misgivings in the March 23 poll."
The MSNBC report adds that "Americans are largely split on whether the Bush administration properly assessed both the strength of the Iraqi military response and the support of the Iraqi people for President Saddam Hussein. The latest poll found that 48 percent thought the administration did underestimate the Iraqi military, while 46 percent did not. When it comes to the solidarity of Iraqis behind Saddam, polling was split down the middle: 45 percent thought the administration underestimated Saddam's popular support, and 45 percent did not."
In the African-American community -- which is paid scant attention by national media -- anecdotal evidence and polling suggest there is heightened concern about the administration's credibility and the wisdom of this war. According to a new Gallup Poll, 68 percent of African-Americans now oppose the war.
"Blacks are not willing to feel obliged to support the president's agenda," explains Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. "They are much more likely to feel that (Bush) is engaging in disruptive policies at home and using the war as a means of shielding himself from criticism on his domestic agenda."
That skepticism is healthy in a democracy. And my sense after spending a good deal of time in recent days with African-Americans and white Americans, Democrats and Republicans, city folks and rural folks, is that it is far more widespread than our neo-conservative commissars would have Americans believe.