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John Nichols | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Imperial President

In St. Louis to toss out the ceremonial first pitch in Monday's season-opening baseball game between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers, George w. Bush was steered by an aide toward an Associated Press reporter who had a question about the Iraq imbroglio.

"So who's the AP person?" demanded Bush.

"I am," the reporter replied.

"You are?" grumbled Bush. "Well, ask it."

"Sir, uh, in regard to...," the reporter began.

Bush stopped the journalist at mid-sentence. In a scolding voice, he demanded to know: "Who're you talking to?"

The AP quickly corrected himself. "Mr. President," he said.

Bush--who in 2002 acknowledged that "If this was a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator"--was satisfied that he had been properly addressed. He then allowed the reporter to continue. However, his reply to the question was typically short and perfunctory.

Perhaps, the reporter would have gotten a better answer if he had just said, "Your Highness..."

Frists of Fury

Poor Bill Frist, he can't be proud of what he has become. He ran for the Senate with a simple mission: prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's $800-million stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.

Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- good hair, good suit, bad politics -- until former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.

With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.

Then the Bush administration got in trouble. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that the Bush administration really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors.

The administration had few credible defenders left. They couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.

The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist was ready to mumble.

Last week, Frist took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."

That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service has been all about profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist has pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who are lack access to health care. As Mother Jones explained some years ago, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."

Frist has delivered well for his family. That $800-million stake in HCA that his father, and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, has moved up steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."

So Bill Frist certainly knows a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.

Of course, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit Clark. The problem was that Clarke has already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."

Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.

Before last week, there was talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remains firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After last week, however, even Republican loyalists had to be wondering whether Frist is good for anything other than taking care of the family business.

Striking Where Bush Is Weakest

If the Bush administration had gone after Osama bin Laden with anything akin to the energy it is expending to discredit Richard Clarke, the story of America's response to terrorism might have been dramatically different. That, of course, is the point that Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser, makes when he says that Bush and his aides "ignored" the terrorist threats before September 11, 2001, and, even more significantly, when he suggests that the administration diverted attention from the real war on terrorism with an unnecessary war on Iraq.

Those are powerful charges, and Clarke has made them convincingly in his testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, in various media appearances over the past few days, and in his book, Against All Enemies. Predictably, the White House spin machine has been churning out increasingly-visceral attacks on Clarke, a self-described Republican who still praises Bush's father as a masterful leader. Amid the tit-for-tat that has developed, however, Clarke has already prevailed. No matter what the Bush administration throws at the man who served in four White Houses, Clarke has already trumped his attackers.

Clarke did so by opening his testimony before the commission on Wednesday not with a bold pronouncement about the failings of the administration, but with an apology: "I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity that they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurrence. I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11," he began. "To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

In that statement, Clarke proved to be a more masterful political strategist -- and, be clear, a duel between a renegade aide and a president in an election year is about politics -- than White House electoral strategist Karl Rove. Why? Because Clarke recognized the ultimate vulnerability of the Bush administration: An absolute inability on the part of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, above all, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, to admit when they have failed, when they have been proven wrong and when they have been caught in lies.

The administration that began by neglecting George Bush's popular-vote deficit in the 2000 and claiming a mandate for radical change has been consistent in nothing so much as its refusal to accept unpleasant realities. Bush and his aides always refuse to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. As such, they are always pointing fingers of blame at others. September 11? Blame evil or Bill Clinton -- pretty much the same thing in the Bush administration's collective mind. False information about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction program gets into the State of the Union Address? Blame the CIA or someone, anyone, in Europe. Economic downturn? Blame Democrats in Congress for not backing bigger tax cuts for corporations and more-of-the-same trade policies. False figures on the cost of Medicare reform go to Congress? Blame, well, er, gee, gay marriage?

No matter what goes wrong, the ironclad rule of the Bush administration has been to find someone outside the administration -- preferably a Democrat or a foreigner -- to blame. And if there is no way to blame someone else, the policy has been to keep expressing an Orwellian faith in the prospect that the failure will become a success, or that the lie will be made true -- witness Cheney's refusal to back away from his pre-war "they'll greet us with flowers" fantasy about the Iraqi response to a U.S.-led invasion.

Supposedly, this refusal to bend in the face of reality is smart politics. But a constant pattern of avoiding responsibility tends, eventually, to catch up even with the smartest politicians. Richard Nixon never recognized that fact and it destroyed his presidency. Bill Clinton, for all of his failings, did recognize it and, with his televised apology for mishandling of the Monica Lewinsky mess, thwarted Republican attempts to destroy his presidency.

Richard Clarke, who lived inside the belly of the beast that is the Bush administration, recognizes its many vulnerabilities. And, by reminding the American people that apologies are owed for failings before 9/11 and since, he struck Bush and his aides where they are weakest.

When Rupert Murdoch Calls...

Last Friday, the Bush Administration was busy pumping up hopes that the war on terrorism was about to yield a victory: the capture along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan of the reputed No. 2 man in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. As it turned out, Dr Ayman Al-Zawahri was probably not among the militants holed up in the heavily fortified compounds that were assaulted by Pakistani troops and their US advisors.

But, by most measures, the prospective capture of what Administration aides described as "a high-value target" was treated as a very big deal by the Bush White House. At the same time, Administration aides were busy trying to hold together the coalition of the sort-of willing that was cobbled together to support the invasion of Iraq. With Spain's new prime minister declaring the occupation "a disaster" and threatening to withdraw that country's troops from Iraq, and with Poland's president telling European reporters that his country was "misled" about the nature of the threat posed by Iraq, the Administration has its hands full. And, of course, top administration aides were already scrambling to counter charges by Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism aide, whose new book reveals that prior to 9/11 the Bush team ignored "repeated warnings" about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.

Surely, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a key player on all the fronts that were in play, had a very long list of responsibilities. No time for diversions on Friday, right? Wrong.

Rice took time out of the middle of the day to address a secretive gathering that included global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and top executives from television networks, newspapers and other media properties owned by Murdoch's News Corp. conglomerate. Rice spoke at some length via satellite to Murdoch and his cronies, who had gathered at the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel in Cancun Mexico, according to reports published in the British press.

The Guardian newspaper, which sent a reporter to Cancun, revealed that Rice was asked to address the group by executives of the Murdoch-controlled Fox broadcast and cable networks in the US. The Fox "family" includes, of course, the Fox News cable channel, which the Guardian correctly describes as "hugely supportive of President George Bush."

"Although she is not there in person, the presence of Ms. Rice underlines the importance of Rupert Murdoch's news operations to the Bush administration, which may face growing criticism that it led the country into war on false pretences ahead of November's presidential election," the Guardian account of the Cancun gathering explained.

In addition to Fox, Murdoch controls the Bush-friendly Weekly Standard magazine and New York Post newspaper, as well as 35 local television stations and the 20th Century Fox movie studio. Thanks to Bush Administration appointees to the Federal Communications Commission, Murdoch's reach is rapidly expanding in the US. In December, the FCC approved News Corp.'s $6.6-billion takeover of DirecTV, the country's leading satellite television firm.

That decision made Murdoch the only media executive with satellite, cable and broadcast assets in the US.

In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a very powerful player in the media – and, because of his willingness to turn his properties into mouthpieces for the administration, in the politics of the United States. So it should probably not come as any surprise that, like the politicians in any number of countries where Murdoch has come to dominate the discourse, Bush Administration officials answer Rupert's call – even when they are supposedly preoccupied with national security concerns.

Rice's willingness to brief Fox executives is especially intriguing in light of the fact that she continues to refuse to brief the bipartisan panel that is investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is expected to hear this week from Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William Cohen; and President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger. But Rice has rejected invitations to testify in public.

So it seems that, when the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States calls, the Bush Administration's national security is not available. But when Rupert Murdoch calls, well, how could Condoleezza Rice refuse?

Avoiding Dean's Mistakes

Barack Obama's victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator "the man to watch in Illinois" and "the country's hottest Senate candidate." The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.

For backers of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to "act like a Democrat" if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.

So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn't:

1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, "I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race." Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. "It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention," explained Axelrod. "One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources." Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the "air wars" at the close of the campaign."

2.) When the competition intensified, Obama kept his cool. Like U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who won a 1992 Democratic primary after two better-known and better-financed opponents went wildly negative on one another, Obama presented himself as a calm, attractive alternative to foes whose flaws became increasingly evident at the frenzied finish of the campaign. Even as polls began to identify him as the frontrunner in late February, he campaigned as the nice-guy underdog and he kept on message. Unlike Dean, Obama gave the media few if any gaffes to highlight. In this sense, he was more like another of this year's Democratic presidential contenders, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. That's no coincidence. Obama's chief strategist, Axelrod, played a similar role with the Edwards campaign.

3.) To the very end, Obama focused on his base in Chicago's vote-rich African-American neighborhoods. Obama represents a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population in the state Senate, and he ran an unsuccessful but high-profile Democratic primary for a congressional seat in 2000. And he earned the active support of key political players in the African-American community, such as Jackson and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. Obama's other appeal was to white liberals, a point emphasized by commercials that featured testimonials from Schakowsky and the daughter of former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Where the Dean campaign stretched itself thin trying to secure a big win early on, Obama's campaign remained focused on African-American and liberal wards where he could maximize his vote. He ended up winning as much as 90 percent of the vote in some Chicago precincts. Obama won close to 500,000 votes in Chicago's Cook County, beating his closest competitor by an almost 4-1 margin. Comparisons were made between Obama's strategy and that of the late Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 at the head of a rainbow coalition of African-American and white liberal voters. While Danny Davis, a close ally of Washington, was cautious about the precise comparison, he did say that Obama "reenergized the base" and created "more energy than I've seen since Harold Washington."

Two other notes are worth making in aftermath of the Illinois voting:

* For Democrats, who are becoming cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the fight for control of the Senate, the Obama win is very good news. That's because he came through the primary reasonably unscathed, and because the excitement about his candidacy will make fund-raising easier in a tight year. Obama will face a tough race against millionaire Republican Jack Ryan, who will campaign as a "compassionate conservative." But if Obama continues to run smart, he's got a good chance of picking up a currently Republican Senate seat in a state that is likely to trend Democratic this fall. If Democrats gain the Illinois seat and the Colorado seat that Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is vacating, they will at least be in the fight, although they are still up against the difficult reality that five southern seats currently held by Democrats are open. The interesting new development is that polls in Pennsylvania show Republican Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from conservative U.S. Representative Pat Toomey in that state's April 27 Republican primary. If Specter loses in April, the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel, could well win in November.

* No one paid much attention to the Illinois presidential primary, which John Kerry won with more than 72 percent of the vote and 141 delegates -- giving him more than enough delegate support to attain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. The only candidate who came close to competing with Kerry in Illinois was a candidate who had withdrawn from the race: John Edwards, who took just under 11 percent of the vote and appears to have secured two delegates. Even with a maximized African-American turnout, Al Sharpton ran miserably. In the first Democratic presidential primary after Sharpton endorsed John Kerry but said he would continue his campaign in order to help shape the direction of the party, the New Yorker ran behind Kerry, Edwards and two other contenders who have folded their campaigns: former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the race two months ago, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who withdrew last month. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who says he is still in the running, finished even further behind.

History provides plenty of examples of Democratic challengers who have remained in the running for the party's presidential nomination even after it is beyond their grasp. They have done so to raise issues, to influence the direction of the party and to position themselves for future political endeavors. In some cases -- Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992 -- the challengers have won primaries, secured delegates and achieved what, at the least, could be described as moral victories. Sharpton and Kucinich are falling far short of the mark set by those previous contenders. When a challenger who is actually campaigning runs behind candidates who have left the race, it is hard to argue that he is having any influence on the frontrunner -- let alone on the direction of the party.

An Indecent Proposal

"We are moving in the direction of undermining the First Amendment," said US Representative Ron Paul, the maverick Texan who was the only Republican member of the House to oppose the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. Paul, one of the least likely defenders of shock jocks like Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, is, of course, correct. The measure, which passed the House by a vote of 391-22 last week, was written with the intent of preventing broadcast personalities from engaging in certain forms of potentially offensive speech by threatening them -- and the stations on which they appear -- with financial ruin.

Under the legislation that passed the House, the fine for an on-air personality who violates the ill-defined decency standards applied by the Federal Communications Commission would rise from $11,000 to $500,000. The fine against the owner of the station on which the violation was heard and seen would rise from $27,500 to $500,000.

Before the vote, officials of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists urged the measure's defeat, with union president John Connolly and executive director Greg Hessinger arguing in a letter to House members that, "Such legislation should be rejected on the grounds that it represents an unconstitutional threat to free speech and would have an unnecessary chilling effect on artistic freedom."

Representative Gary Ackerman, D-New York, was blunter. If implemented, the congressman said, the law would not have "a chilling effect." "It would have a freezing effect," he explained.

Marvin Johnson, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, said "the very notion (of the legislation) runs counter to everything prescribed in the First Amendment. The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine. Not only will our First Amendment rights suffer, but so will the national dialogue. In the end, we are left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent' and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers."

So how did so flawed a piece of legislation win such overwhelming bipartisan support in the House? The answer has a lot to do with those flaws. Even members who knew the proposal was bad policy figured it was safe to support it because the bill's prospects in the Senate seemed slim; and because, if it ever did become law, the measure would face a certain court challenge.

The push for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which ramped up after singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl show, represents the worst sort of election-year showboating. It is directed only at over-the-air television and radio stations. No restrictions are placed on the nation's booming cable and satellite TV and satellite radio networks. And it does not begin to address one of the primary factors in the explosive growth of programming that Americans find offensive -- the concentration of control of radio stations in fewer and fewer hands after most limits on ownership were eliminated with the passage by Congress of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As corporations such as Clear Channel have bought up local radio stations, they have swept out hometown programming that tended to reflect regional differences -- or that, at the least, responded to local complaints -- and imposed programming and personalities with no connection to the community.

"The fact is, higher fines are going to do nothing," argued Representative Dave Obey, D-Wisconsin. "If you want to do something to give communities the ability to stop this nonsense, you will take away from the FCC the ability to put broadcast power in the hands of a few corporations."

Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, one of the most outspoken advocates for media reform in the Congress, explained that the House legislation dealt "only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the underlying cause" -- concentrated ownership.

Yet, when the votes were counted, even Obey and Hinchey voted for the measure. Only 22 members, including Paul and Ackerman, had the courage to actually vote "no," with most of them voicing free speech concerns. Another 20 members voted "present" or simply did not vote at all. Among those voting "no" were many of the House's most progressive members, including California Democrats Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren and Pete Stark, as well as New Yorkers Jerry Nadler and Jose Serrano. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also voted "no," as did Georgia Democrat John Lewis, the veteran civil rights activist. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was among the members who did not vote.

While the House bill passed overwhelmingly, it still must clear some high hurdles before it become the law of the land. There appears to be less interest in the issue in the Senate than there was in the House. And, if the Senate does act, it will be on a significantly different piece of legislation. While the Senate bill would also raise fines to $500,000, it includes an amendment that addresses the media concentration concerns raised by Obey and Hinchey.

The Senate bill, if passed, would put on hold the media ownership rule changes endorsed by the FCC in a 3-2 vote last June. Under the provision, which was proposed by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, the General Accounting Office would conduct a year-long study of the relationship between media consolidation and the growth in the number of indecency complaints.

The FCC's moves to ease ownership limits would then be reassessed on the basis of the GAO study.

Because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is under pressure from the Bush administration to preserve the ownership rule changes -- which are popular with large media companies and campaign contributors associated with them -- it is unlikely that a vote will be scheduled anytime soon on legislation that includes the Dorgan amendment. Threats to freedom of speech may not be of much more concern to the Senate than they were to House, but threats to powerful corporations and campaign contributors are another matter altogether.

(John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media [Seven Stories]. McChesney and Nichols are co-founders of Free Press, the media reform network. The Free Press website is at www.mediareform.net)

Exploiting 9/11, Badly

It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched American politics over the past several years that George W. Bush has begun his formal reelection campaigning by exploiting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for political advantage. This is, after all, the president whose aides schemed on the day of the attacks to use them to get Congress to grant Bush "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. And it is the president whose political czar, Karl Rove, conspired with Republican Senate candidates in 2002 to employ 9/11 images as tools to attack the patriotism of Democrats, such as Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran.

Everyone expected the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to begin its television advertising campaign by branding Bush as the 9/11 candidate.

The only surprise is that the Bush political team would, after more than two years of preparation, perform the task so gracelessly.

Was there no one in the close confines of the Bush campaign with enough awareness of the sensitivities that remain -- especially among the friends, families and colleagues of the dead -- to suggest that it might be inappropriate to produce campaign advertisements featuring images of the dead being removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center?

By any measure, the much-heralded opening of the Bush-Cheney Version 2.0 campaign has been a disaster for the president.

The point of the sort of gauzy, flag-flapping political advertisements that the Bush campaign has begun airing was to raise the president's approval ratings after a Democratic primary season in which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his rivals landed some serious blows to Bush's reelection prospects. Bush aides had planned to use the advertisements and a busy schedule of appearances by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney to regain dominance of the media coverage of the 2004 campaign.

Instead, the "story" of the week in which Bush was supposed to be reintroducing himself to the voters focused on the anger of people like Kristen Breitweiser over the Bush ads. "After 3,000 people were murdered on his watch, it seems that that takes an awful lot of audacity," declared Breitweiser. "Honestly, it's in poor taste."

What a nightmare for the Bush campaign crew when New York City firefighter Tommy Fee was asked by a reporter about the ads and responded, "It's as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics." And Fee was not alone. Tom Ryan, a 20-year veteran with the city's Fire Department, reacted to the use of footage from a fireman's funeral in one of the ads bysaying, "As a firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero, it's deeply offensive to see the Bush campaign use these images to capitalize on the greatest American tragedy of our time."

Suddenly, family members, friends and colleagues of 9/11 victims were all over television, radio and the newspapers echoing the sentiments of Monica Gabrielle, whose husband died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. "It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people," Gabrielle said of the use of images of the removal of the 9/11 dead for political purposes. "It's unconscionable."

By Friday, just a day after the commercials began airing in battleground states, the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows group was circulating the names of a long list of family members and firefighters who were objecting to the ads.Spouses, parents and siblings of 9/11 victims were holding press conferences in New York to call for the ads to be taken down. And the critics weren't just talking about the ads; they were making very public note of the president's failure to cooperate with the 9/11 commission that is charged with investigating how and why the attacks occurred.

The Bush campaign had tested the ads with focus groups. They knew the use of the 9/11 images was risky; but they very much wanted to begin the process of branding 9/11 as a campaign issue and they thought they could easily dismiss any criticisms as partisan bickering. What the Bush camp failed to anticipate was the speed and the intensity of the negative response to the ads.

As the firestorm built, team Bush went into immediate damage-control mode. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to defend the ads as a reflection of America's "shared experience" during Bush's term. But Giuliani refused to say whether he would exploit 9/11 images in a similar way if he was running for office, so his did not prove to be a particularly effective defense.

The Bush campaign has been counting on Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest and most camera-friendly aides, to provide the first line of spin. She did a round of television talk shows to defend the commercials as tasteful and necessary. But, as usual, Hughes pushed the Bush line harder than was appropriate, or useful.

"I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of (the attacks)," she grumped on "The Early Show" on CBS.

Does Hughes seriously mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten the details of September 11, 2001, or of the president's actions in the weeks and months that followed? That's a stretch. Even Hughes admitted, in the same interview, that, "September 11 was not just a distant tragedy." And what aspect of the president's "leadership" is highlighted by incorporating images of the dead being removed from Ground Zero into a campaign commercial?

More importantly, why would Hughes, an expert in the choice of words, choose to dismiss the widows, relatives and comrades of the dead as "some Democrats"? The answer speaks volumes about the thinking within the closed confines of the president's inner circle. The Bush team's view is that anyone who criticizes the president, even someone who lost a family member or colleague in the collapse of the twin towers, is automatically an anti-Bush partisan.

That's a serious miscalculation by the Bush campaign. And a surprising one. Hughes and others are allowing intense loyalty to their boss to cloud their judgement. Does this mean that the Bush team, which is made up of some of the ablest political minds that money can buy, is destined to blow this reelection campaign -- just as the able team of Bush's father blew the previous president's 1992 reelection campaign? Not necessarily; it is still a long way to Election Day and this campaign will take many unexpected turns over the next eight months. But it does suggest that the people who dressed the president up in flight-suit drag to declare the Iraq War mission accomplished last May are still off their game. In a week when they had planned to claim control of the political discourse, they lost it. Badly.

Running for Running Mate

Had John Edwards won the Ohio and Georgia primaries on Tuesday, it would have been difficult to prevent him from staking his claim on the Democratic nomination for vice president. But Edwards lost Ohio by 18 percentage points and Georgia by six. And the North Carolina senator's candidacy was rejected at least as enthusiastically by voters in the eight other states that held Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses on SuperTuesday.

So John Kerry scored two victories Tuesday. With his 9-state sweep (and a completely credible second-place show in Vermont against that state's sentimental favorite, Howard Dean) he went from frontrunner to presumptive nominee. And, by vanquishing Edwards so thoroughly, he freed himself to pick the running mate he prefers.

This does not mean that Edwards is out of the running for veep. He survived longer as a serious contender than any of the other prominent challengers to the Kerry juggernaut. He got high marks as a personable, tireless and almost always on-message campaigner. He put together the best stump speech of any of the candidates -- a emotional call for closing the economic gap between what hedescribed as "the two Americas." And he successfully raised an issue -- the damage done to American workers and communities by free-trade agreements -- that Democrats will have to address if they want to be competitive this fall in critical states such as Ohio and Missouri.

But Edwards got stuck in second-place and never secured the range of primary and caucus victories he would have needed to position himself as an inevitable running mate. Like former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, who ran second to Jimmy Carter in Democratic primary after Democratic primary in 1976, Edwards comes out of the competition with a reputation as an appealing campaigner, a genuine contributor to the debate and, unfortunately, a loser.

With Edwards' star shining a bit less brightly, his name will be just one of the many considered by Kerry as the veep sweepstakes heats up. The usual suspects will be trotted out. It will be suggested that Kerry needs to attach himself to a conservative Democratic Leadership Council-insider like Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. But Bayh cast a controversial May, 2001, vote for the Bush administration's initial plan to cut taxes for the wealthy, making him a difficult choice if Kerry wants to run, as he should, as a critic of the Bush administration's failed economic policies.

There is already a good deal of talk about Florida Senator Bob Graham, who clearly has more to recommend him than Bayh. As a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for instance, he is prepared to critique the Bush administration's misguided approach to the war on terrorism. But Graham proved to be ill-prepared for primetime when he mounted his own listless campaign for this year's Democratic presidential nomination. The best argument for Graham is that he might help Kerry win Florida, allowing Democrats to avenge the scandalous 2000 miscount of that state's votes. The best argument against Graham is that, if polls are to be believed, he might not help Kerry win that state's critical electoral votes.

Graham won't be the only vice presidential prospect whose prime appeal is the prospect that he or she might be able to "deliver" a state. But, if Kerry is as smart as he has proven to be so far in this campaign, he won't play the old game of picking a running mate who might--emphasis on "might"--help him carry a particular battleground state. Rather, he will follow the lead of Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and pick a vice presidential prospect who helps to energize the party's base voters nationally, and who adds ideas and energy to a ticket that will be needing more of both those commodities.

Among the people Kerry might consider are:

* New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the single most effective battler against corporate abuses in either political party. Spitzer has been a watchdog on Wall Street and a fearless advocate for consumers. He's also got a great track record as a defender of women's rights. Spitzer's smart, he's quick on his feet and he already has achieved a stature that extends well beyond New York's borders.

* Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the sole opponent in the Senate to the Patriot Act and the most prominent Democratic advocate for campaign finance reform. Feingold's got a far better record than Kerry on issues of concern to working Americans and farmers, meaning that he could be a particularly effective advocate for the ticket in the swing states of the Great Lakes and the upper Midwest.

* Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, one of the savviest and mosteffective members of the current Congress. He's a former state Supreme Court Justice with a great legal mind. And wouldn't it be interesting to hear a Texas-accented voice explaining the folly of the war with Iraq, the Patriot Act and other Bush initiatives?

* Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who would bring to the ticket varied experience and a base in the southwest -- an emerging swing region. Born in New York, Napolitano moved to Arizona after law school, helped represent Anita Hill, served as U.S. Attorney for Arizona and was elected that state'sattorney general in 1998. Four years later, she beat a top Republican to win the governorship.

* California Representative Diane Watson, a veteran Los Angeles educator who served on the Los Angeles Board of Education, as a state legislator, and as the U.S. ambassador to Micronesia before her election to Congress in 2001. A fierce critic of the Bush administration on education issues, she is, as well, one of the most consistent advocates in Congress for media reform. And, as a passionate and highly-energetic African-American woman, she could do a tremendous job of maximizing turnout among the party's base voters.

* Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky, the truest heir to Paul Wellstone in the current Congress. An able grassroots organizer and a skilled communicator, she is one of the most energetic members of the current Congress. And she is arguably its most aggressive progressive. Schakowsky is often the first member of the House to voice criticism of the latest Bush administration misstep -- she had a statement out on Haiti before the administration had even started spinning. As a vice presidential candidate, she would drive Karl Rove and his crew crazy by outmaneuvering them at every turn. And it is almost too delicious to imagine her debating Dick Cheney.

Antiwar Primary Challenge

In 1966, barely two years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by the House and Senate, a handful of intrepid candidates challenged pro–Vietnam War Democratic incumbents in party primaries. The most prominent of their number, Ramparts magazine editor Robert Scheer, took on California US Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, an otherwise liberal Democrat who refused to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s warmaking in southeast Asia.

Scheer won 45 percent of the vote in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to a distinguished career in journalism. But he also did something else. His campaign planted the seeds for a 1970 challenge to Cohelan by Ron Dellums, who dispatched the incumbent and went on to serve almost three decades in the House. Dellums was not the only antiwar challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year. In New York, Bella Abzug upset seven-term incumbent Leonard Farbstein. In Massachusetts, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry and Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School, both prepared campaigns against hawkish Democrat Phil Philbin, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Kerry stepped back and Drinan went on to beat the twenty-six-year incumbent in a September, 1970, Democratic primary.

The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam. But as in the late 1960s and 1970s, antiwar candidates have begun to prepare primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The most serious so far is that of Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old San Francisco attorney with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Yale, who is taking on twelve-term incumbent Tom Lantos in a heavily Democratic Bay Area district.

Lantos has a reasonably solid liberal record on domestic issues, and he generally wins high ratings from the AFL-CIO and groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. But it’s a different story on foreign-policy matters. Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was one of the leading advocates in the House for the use-of-force resolution in 2002. He served as a pro-resolution floor manager and said it was his “privilege” to deliver eighty-one Democratic votes for the president. Last year, Lantos was a champion of the Bush Administration’s proposal to allocate another $87 billion to fund US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has, as well, been one of the House’s most consistent Democratic backers of the Patriot Act.

Khanna launched his challenge to Lantos in December, saying, “In March, Democrats in San Mateo County and San Francisco will have the opportunity to reject Bush’s flawed Iraq policy and his misguided war on our liberties, and to send someone to Congress who shares their own values.”

The question, then, was whether Khanna, a political newcomer, could mount a viable enough campaign against an entrenched incumbent to make the choice he promised a realistic option. Though Lantos remains the favorite going into Tuesday’s primary vote, Khanna has made a race of it. He has raised a respectable amount of money—close to $250,000 by mid-February—and attracted enough volunteers to run an energetic campaign that feels in the best sense like that of Howard Dean, whose presidential run Khanna supported.

The challenger was endorsed early on by the California Democratic Council, a coalition of grassroots Democratic groups across the state that had in the past backed Lantos. More recently, he has picked up strong support from two of San Francisco’s most prominent progressives, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Democrat, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a Green who last year came within a few percentage points of being elected that city’s mayor. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is another Khanna enthusiast. “I live in the 12th Congressional District in California. We’re a pretty sensible (you might call us liberal) bunch,” Lessig, the author of The Future of Ideas, wrote in a recent entry on his popular weblog. “Over 80 percent oppose the war. Almost 70 percent oppose the Patriot Act. Yet our Congressman—a wonderful and amazing figure, Tom Lantos—doesn’t vote the way his district thinks. He has supported the war. He has supported the Patriot Act. I haven’t done this before, and I’m not going to do this much again, but this gap between who we are and how we are represented has led me to help Congressman Lantos’ opponent—Ro Khanna. Ro’s a bright, young, committed Democrat, committed to representing the views of his district.”

Khanna also has the backing of the region’s influential alternative weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which said in an editorial, “We’ve been saying for years that Rep. Tom Lantos needs a good challenge, and a bright, Yale University-educated 27-year-old lawyer named Ro Khanna is finally giving him one. Khanna—who would be the first person of Indian descent elected to Congress since the 1950s—is campaigning primarily on the issues of the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act. Lantos supported both; polls show a strong majority of the voters in this western San Francisco and northern peninsula district oppose both.”

The high level of support for Khanna has got the political establishment scared. The challenger has started taking hits for being a corporate lawyer and for fueling his campaign with money from Indian-American entrepreneurs who are not always the most progressive players. For the most part, the attacks are standard political cheap shots. But they could take a toll on a candidate who is relatively new to the district and, despite an energetic campaign, not nearly so well-known as the incumbent.

That said, Khanna has posed enough of a threat to force Lantos to spend a substantial chunk of his $1.5 million campaign fund. The incumbent has, as well, begun to talk about problems with the Patriot Act.

After taking a good deal of criticism from local media for failing to accept Khanna’s debate challenges, Lantos faced off Friday against Khanna and a third candidate, Maad Abu-Ghazalah. During the debate, Khanna said, “We have a chance to do something absolutely extraordinary in this election: to hold a congressman responsible based on his voting record. Mr. Lantos has had a distinguished career in public service, but his votes for the war and the Patriot Act don’t represent the will of this district.”

The extent to which Khanna’s campaign actually ends up holding Lantos responsible will be decided by the voters on Tuesday. Win or lose, however, Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond says, “Khanna has done what you would hope a challenger would do. He has forced the incumbent to come home, to answer questions about his votes on issues like the war and the Patriot Act. This is exactly what primaries are for.”

Trade, War, Socialism & Capitalism

Thursday night's wide-ranging and refreshingly substantive debate between the four remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination did little to slow the momentum of frontrunner John Kerry as the likely-to-be-definitional Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses approach. Kerry outmaneuvered his chief opponent on a key issue, and showed some skills that will likely serve him well in a November contest with Republican George W. Bush. But the Massachusetts senator made at least one statement – regarding presidential war making -- that ought to concern anyone who still thinks Congress should have a say on matters of war and peace.

Here are some highlights and lowlights from what is likely to be one of the last debates of the primary season:

KERRY TRUMPED JOHN EDWARDS ON THE TRADE ISSUE. The North Carolina senator has made criticism of free trade policies a central theme of his campaign to upset Kerry in "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses in states such as California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota. And Edwards has plenty of ammunition for the fight, as Kerry's record on trade issues is difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush. But, when the trade issue came up during Thursday's Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Kerry was ready for Edwards. And he hit the North Carolina senator where it hurt.

After Edwards suggested that the frontrunner was changing his pro-free trade tune with recent statements about the need to insert protections for workers and the environment into trade agreements, Kerry suggested to voters that Edwards is, himself, something of a newcomer to the fair-trade movement.

Asked if he was "shocked" by Edwards' focus on the trade issue, Kerry said, "Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John never even mentioned trade. And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he's claiming that he was against it and these other agreements."

Then, Kerry added, "I have said clearly for a number of years now, we have to have labor and environment standards in all of our trade agreements. That is exactly the same position as John Edwards."

Ouch!

From an issue standpoint, that was as close as Kerry and Edwards got to clashing. For the most part, they simply avoided taking shots at one another. That was good for Kerry, and devastating for Edwards, because polls show the North Carolinian continues to trail in all the big states that will vote March 2. Edwards is drawing large crowds, and he has momentum in Georgia and upstate New York. He has won some important newspaper endorsements in California, from the Sacramento Bee and the L.A. Weekly. But, in debate after debate, he has refused to take the bait when questioners have offered him opportunities to draw clear distinctions between himself and Kerry. On Thursday night, when he really needed to make those distinctions, Edwards instead sounded like he was more concerned about getting his name on Kerry's list of prospective running mates.

Edwards was not helped by the fact that, while he kept the gloves on, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich was far more aggressive than in the past.

Distancing himself from both Edwards and Kerry on the trade issue, Kucinich delivered the most useful critique of the World Trade Organization yet heard in a presidential debate. "Throughout this campaign I have visited city after city where I've seen grass growing in parking lots where they used to make steel, they used to make cars, they used to make ships. And let me tell you something: NAFTA and the WTO must be canceled. Let me tell you why. The WTO, for example, it doesn't permit any alterations. When we, as members of Congress, sought from the administration a Section 201 procedure to stop the dumping of steel into our markets so we could stop our American steel jobs from being crushed, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States and said we had no right to do that. Now, the World Trade Organization, as long as we belong to it, will not let us protect the jobs. This is the reason why we have outsourcing going on right now. We can't tax it. We can't put tariffs on it. And that's why I say, in order to protect jobs in this country and to be able to create a enforceable structure for trade, we need to get out of NAFTA, get out of the WTO, stop the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement."

On the trade issue, which Edwards has sought to make his own, the winners Thursday night were Kerry, on style, and Kucinich, on content.

KERRY SOUNDED SCARY ON THE SUBJECT OF MILITARY ADVENTURISM: After explaining that, "No. I do not regret my vote" for the resolution that authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq, Kerry said, "Let me make it very clear: We did not give the president any authority that the president of the United States didn't have. Did we ratify what he was doing? Yes. But Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. And the fact is, the president was determined to go, evidently. But we changed the dynamics by getting him to agree to go to the United Nations and to make a set of promises to the nation."

Apart from the question of whether the Congress actually "changed the dynamics" of Bush's march toward war, Kerry again appeared to embrace the view that presidents can go to war without Congressional approval. The comments Thursday night echoed stratements Kerry made in the debate before Wisconsin's February 17 primary.

Amazingly, no one, not even Kucinich or the Rev. Al Sharpton, let alone the media questioners, challenged Kerry to explain his view regarding the advice and consent that the Constitution says Congress is required to provide before presidents start wars. During the 1990s, a number of members of Congress, most notably U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, challenged the Clinton administration's decisions to intervene in the Balkans and other parts of the world without clear Congressional approval. "There seems to be an informal understanding that, despite the fact that the Constitution says the Congress must declare wars, and despite the fact that the War Powers Act is good law, the Congress is simply going to ignore its duties," Feingold complained at the time. "There has been a willing surrender of Congressional authority to an aggrandizing White House. It suits both their purposes. The Administration does not want to endure tough questioning about what it is doing around the world, and the Congress does not seem to want to take responsibility for deciding whether the country should be engaged in wars all over the planet."

Kerry stood with Clinton and against those who sought to assert the role of Congress in decisions about going to war. It should come as little surprise that now, as he seeks the presidency, he remains enthusiastic about extending the power of the executive. But shouldn't he at least have been asked to explain whether he thinks Feingold and others are wrong to assert the right and responsibility of Congress to provide advice and consent before the U.S. goes to war.

It is notable that, in 1970, when Kerry first ran for Congress, he told a reporter, "I'm an internationalist. I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations." That sounded suitably anti-war, but Massachusetts anti-war activists wisely decided that year to back a candidate with a deeper understanding of the Constitution and of the role of Congress, Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School. Drinan won the seat and, citing Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution, he promptly wrote a resolution to impeach then-President Nixon for his illegal bombing of Cambodia. The impeachment resolution won the support of twelve members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Boston attorney John Bonifaz, who is 2003 filed suit on behalf of a group of soldiers and members of Congress to challenging the Bush administration's authority to go to war, says that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war debate, it is important for this year's Democratic National Convention to adopt a platform plank that affirms the party's support for Constitutional controls on war making. "The policy of the party should be to oppose further erosion of the war powers clause of the Constitution," says Bonifaz, the author of Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush (Nation Books). "The party should say, 'Never again should a president be allowed to go to war as George Bush did.'"

On the basis of what he had to say Thursday night, it would be interesting to see whether John Kerry would support or oppose such a plank.

SOCIALISM VERSUS CAPITALISM: Toward the end of Thursday night's debate, Kucinich was explaining how a single-payer national health care system "would provide all coverage for everyone, all medically necessary procedures, plus vision care, dental care, mental health care." Moderator Larry King exclaimed, "In other words, socialism?"

Kucinich shot back, "Wait a minute. You know what? What we have now, Larry, what we have now, what we have now, Larry, is predatory capitalism which makes of the American people a cash crop for the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies."

Over the sound of thunderous applause from the studio audience, King replied, "Well, said."

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