John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Hunter Thompson's Political Genius

Norman Mailer had the best take on Hunter Thompson's passing.

"He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right," mused Mailer upon learning of Thompson's suicide.

Anyone who read Thompson knew that the so-called "gonzo journalist" was about a lot more than sex, drugs and rock-and-roll -- although it is Thompson who gets credit for introducing all three of those precious commodities to the mainstream of American journalism. The gun-toting, mescaline-downing wildman that showed up in Doonesbury as "Uncle Duke" was merely the cartoon version of an often serious, and always important, political commentator who once said that his beat was the death of the American dream. Thompson was to the political class of the United States in the latter part of the 20th century what William Hazlitt was to the English poets of the early 19th century: a critic who was so astute, so engaged and so unyielding in his idealism that he ultimately added more to the historical canon than did many of his subjects.

Thompson taught me how to look at politics -- his book on the 1972 presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, remains the one necessary campaign journal of the era -- and I cherished him for that. (When I was writing a book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, I wanted to pay homage to Thompson, so I asked him if we could use one of his brilliant "Hey Rube" columns to remind readers that no crime was beyond the imagination of the Bush brain trust. Thompson, who referred to George W. Bush as "the goofy Child President" and saw the Bush family as a recurring cancer that plagued the American body politic, leapt at the chance to be part of the project. He continued to delight in Bush-bashing, titling a column published at the time of the 43rd president's first inaugural: "Abandon All Hope.")

But Thompson also taught me how to do politics. Thompson was a journalist in the traditional sense of the craft and, as such, he was entirely unwilling to merely observe the wrongdoings of the political class. He wanted to create a newer, better politics -- or, at the very least, to so screw up the current machinery that it would no longer work for the people who he referred to as "these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today."

In 1970, fresh from covering the assassinations, police riots and related disappointments of the 1968 presidential campaign, Thompson waded into the fight himself as a "pro-hippie, anti-development" candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, which included the ski town of Aspen. Thompson wanted to win in order to save what was still a rural, live-and-let-live county from the influx of Hollywood stars, corporate hoteliers and the rest of the elite entourage that would make it the nation's premier ski resort. But he also wanted to teach a lesson about politics that would have meaning far beyond Colorado.

Thompson ran on what he and his backers dubbed the "Freak Power" ticket, declaring in an advertisement in the Aspen Times that, "(In) 1970 Amerika a lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go. This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all - not in the literal sense -- but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition -- but nothing changes. So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of "freaks" are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting..."

At a time when many of his contemporaries were disappearing into a drug haze, or shouting silly "Smash-the-State" slogans, Thompson was exploring a more radical prospect. He wanted to combine "Woodstock vibrations, New Left activism, and basic Jeffersonian Democracy with strong echoes of the Boston Tea Party ethic" into what the writer-candidate referred to as "a blueprint for stomping the (conservative Vice President Spiro) Agnew mentality by its own rules -- with the vote, instead of the bomb; by seizing the power machinery and using it, instead of merely destroying it."

The experiment was not an immediate success. But Thompson did win the city of Aspen and took 44 percent of the vote county wide. In fact, only a last-minute deal between the Democratic and Republican parties pulled together enough votes for the incumbent sheriff to beat the "Freak Power" candidate. But, as Thompson noted, "the Aspen campaign suddenly assumed national importance as a sort of accidental trial balloon that might, if it worked, be tremendously significant."

As it happened, even in defeat, the campaign proved significant. Because of all the national attention accorded Thompson's campaign, the blueprint was noted by "new politics" candidates and activists around the country. They won power in college towns such as Berkeley and Madison and Ann Arbor, and eventually in communities that were threatened by commercial and real estate pressures similar to those that were the target of Thompson's Aspen campaign. Indeed, even in Aspen, Thompson's politics would eventually win out -- in the mid-1990s, he organized a campaign that successfully blocked a plan by the Aspen Ski Company to expand the local airport to accommodate jetliners that were designed for "industrial tourism."

Hunter Thompson once said: "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why." And when all the rumination about his adventurous approach to drugs and guns is done, there will remain the blueprint for that better politics that Thompson was wise enough and idealistic enough to believe might yet redeem the American dream.


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

The Anti-Imperialist GW

America has become a profoundly--and tragically--ahistoric country. As such, the 273rd anniversary of the birth of George Washington will pass this Tuesday with little note. Washington's legacy has been so disregarded by its heirs that his birthday has been stirred into the generic swill of "President's Day," an empty gesture that blunts the memories of both the first chief executive and the sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln, in order to avoid cluttering February with too many holidays or too much history.

The memory of Washington has become an inconvenience for men who occupy the high stations he and his fellow founders occupied. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte and their ilk certainly do not want the work of remaking America in their own image--as a greedy, self-absorbed and frequently brutal empire--interrupted by reflections upon the nobler nation that Washington and his compatriots imagined.

Considering the ugly state to which the American experiment has degenerated, however, it would make sense for the rest of us to renew our affiliation with the first GW. Indeed, patriots need to call General Washington back into the service of his country--not merely as a clarification of national memory but as a blunt challenge to those who have usurped America's promise with their illegal invasions and reckless misadventures.

It will not be the first time that the wrench of Washington's memory has been tossed into the machinery of American empire.

When dissenters from the impulse toward American empire held their annual gatherings in cities and towns across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, they would meet on the anniversary of George Washington's birth. It was the accepted wisdom of the day that, in addition to having been "the father of his country," Washington was, as well, the father of the anti-imperialist movement. The first president had given his ideological descendants ample evidence on which to base their claim. His 1793 proclamation of American neutrality in regards to European political and military conflicts explicitly rejected international entanglements, with Washington later explaining that, "The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations."

But it was Washington's Farewell Address, delivered in 1796 toward the end of his second presidential term, that became a touchstone for ensuing generations of anti-imperialists. Washington used his last great statement to the nation he had shepherded through the struggle to loosen the grip of British colonial rule, "to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."

Washington saw great danger in any step that would "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice," but it was not just alliances with European states that worried him. The first president counseled that it should be "our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

The commander of America's revolutionary armies did not want his country to follow the European course of collecting colonies and establishing spheres of influence that would need to be defended. He warned that the new United States might "pay with a portion of its independence" for involving itself in "projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives." And he asked a question that would echo across the ages as his presidential successors moved the country further and further from its founding principles: "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"

An American political leader who uttered those words today would be set upon by the self-appointed guardians of false patriotism-- Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and a thousand imitators --and accused of undermining the "war on terrorism" that has become such a convenient excuse for the occupation of Iraq and the development of imperialist instincts that owe more to King George than to George Washington.

But there is nothing American about a career of empire.

In fact, the American impulse is the one that Washington expressed two centuries ago.

The principles that Washington discussed in his Farewell Address were not new concepts. They were, in fact, mainstream opinions shared by many, though surely not all, of his countrymen. A measure of pragmatism underpinned their broad acceptance. America was a new nation, rich in resources but sparsely populated and militarily weak. A career of empire seemed not just hypocritical for the former colony, but impractical. And America was divided, not just over questions of foreign allegiance and entanglement but with regards to her domestic course. New Englanders were already objecting to the practice of human bondage in the southern states and Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, acknowledged that he trembled at the thought of the rough justice that awaited a nation that countenanced the sin of slavery. While the Pennsylvania Quakers imagined cooperation and comity with the indigenous owners of the ground on which Europeans stood as newcomers, governors from Massachusetts in the north to Georgia in the south plotted violent removals of American Indians from their native lands. Washington well recognized that the United States lacked the strength and unity to survive internal struggles over alignment with particular colonial powers, let alone the conflicts and costs associated with colonialisms of its own.

But there was more than enlightened self-interest in play when Washington suggested that, "Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course." From the beginnings of what would come to be referred to as "the American experiment," there was a sense that this endeavor ought to be about something nobler than the mere recreation of European excesses on the new ground of the western Hemisphere. John Winthrop's notion that an American settler might see his or her community "as a city on a hill," a model unto the world for the moral ordering of affairs, echoed across religious, ethnic and regional lines. Among a certain rebellious element, it came to be accepted that Europe's potentates, with their subjects and colonies, represented a corrupt old order that would be replaced only by a shot heard round the world. The American revolutionaries promised that their challenge to the British king and crown would in the words of their tribune, Tom Paine, "begin the world again." The revolution, which the Continental Congress pledged to fight neither "for glory or for conquest," did, in fact, inspire more revolts against colonial authorities.

America's progression toward democracy--slowed, as it was, by the hypocrisy and intolerance of the founders--would, as well, provide a model for the systems that replaced the divine right of kings with the consent of the governed. That requirement of consent should, by its very nature, have rendered illegitimate any colonial or imperialist impulse. And, it seemed many of the founders read it that way. Fifty years after independence was declared, its author, Jefferson, would renew the city-on-a-hill promise with a call to globalize the democratic revolution: "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all: the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government."

George Bush has throttled America's promise by mirroring the worst excesses of King George. He has cast his lot with the colonialists who believe in the spread of enlightenment at gunpoint. Patriots need to mirror the best instincts of another George and pursue that "different course" that the first president said was essential to the maintenance of our independence and our ability to inspire by example rather than force.-----------------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Free Speech on (One) Campus

As a joke some years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Ward Churchill's 1998 book Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. In it, the University of Colorado professor, who is rapidly being turned into the nation's greatest outlaw intellectual by his right-wing critics, argued that nonviolent political activism -- in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- should not be seen as a force for positive social change. Rather, Churchill suggested, pacifism is a counterrevolutionary movement that unintentionally reinforces the very status quo its proponents claim to be dismantling.

As a Quaker, I was not about to buy into Churchill's worldview, which the friend who presented the book with a wink and a nod well understood. And as a journalist who has covered social justice struggles in the United States and abroad for the better part of a quarter century, I knew enough about how political change occurs to find Churchill's thesis wanting.

But I read the book with interest, and found it to be an engaging enough statement of a controversial point of view. It made me think. It forced me to reconsider some of my own presumptions -- although, instead of changing my thinking, Churchill's critique ultimately reinforced my faith that Thoreau, Gandhi, King and their followers are the real change agents. And, while I don't appreciate its premise any more than I do George Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war making, Churchill's book remains on the shelf of serious books to which I return for information and insight.

In other words, while I probably disagree with Ward Churchill more than most of his right-wing critics, I recognize him as a challenging public intellectual who has prodded and provoked my thinking in ways that I have to respect.

So, as a native Wisconsinite, I was pleased when University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chancellor Jack Miller became the first campus administrator in the country to resist the right-wing crusaders who have been campaigning to deny Churchill a right to speak at institutions of higher learning.

The thought police at Fox News, led by Bill O'Reilly, have sought to silence Churchill ever since conservative students at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, stirred up a firestorm regarding an essay, Some People Push Back, in which the professor asserted that the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, had been provoked to action by vile US foreign policies.

"The most that can honestly be said of those involved on Sept. 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course," wrote Churchill, who went on to argue, "As for those in the World Trade Center, well, really, let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break."

Churchill's argument is a troubling one, as it takes a legitimate point of view -- that wrong-minded US policies increase the likelihood that this country and its citizens will become terrorist targets -- and turns it into an argument that reads like a justification for what most people in the United States and abroad see as indefensible violence.

But, while Churchill's views are radical, and to some offensive, the movement to prevent him from expressing those views on campuses is even more troubling. Ideas that provoke debate are the lifeblood of higher education. Bad arguments get dismissed soon enough. But in the process of discarding the bad, good ideas are invariably made stronger. That is the point of the principle that, for more than a century, has guided intellectual inquiry within the University of Wisconsin system: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

Campuses in other states, where there is less of a tradition of academic freedom and respect for the First Amendment, have caved in to the pressure from right-wing media to cancel Churchill's talks. But Wisconsin has a long history of setting a higher standard -- and the decision of the UW-Whitewater chancellor to allow Churchill to speak honors that tradition.

'New Cities' Fight Back

Progressives have not been so poorly positioned to guide public policy at the federal and state levels in decades. Both the White House and the Congress are controlled by conservative Republicans who are bent on rolling back the progress that was made during the twentieth century. Republican governors and legislatures, while not always as conservative as their Washington counterparts, dominate policy making at the state level. Even Democratic governors, they tend to be colorless managers rather than innovative thinkers or bold advocates.

But there is one level of government where progressives continue to be a powerful, and often definitive, force: The cities. Local officials -- mostly Democrats and Greens, but even a few Republicans -- are maintaining the faith that government should solve problems, rather than create them. This week, some of the most creative thinkers and doers from around the country will be gathering in Wisconsin to share ideas and, hopefully, to begin developing a coalition of "New Cities" that will suggest progressive alternatives to the reactionary policies being pushed at the federal and state levels of government.

It is notable that, at the same time that progressive forces have suffered electoral setbacks at the state and federal levels, they have experienced significant success at the local level. Cities such as Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Boulder, Madison, Missoula and San Francisco have long histories of left-leaning governance. But in recent years progressives -- particularly environmental activists -- have been winning mayoralties in unexpected locations such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, the largest cities in two of the most conservative states in the country. In fact, one of the hottest political trends in the country is the takeover of local governments by progressives in western states.

Even where Republicans are in charge, they have governed differently than their compatriots at the federal and state levels. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have been elected as a Republican, and he is certainly not a progressive, but his positions on a host of social and tax issues place him well to the left of many national Democrats.

The tendency of voters to elect progressives at the local level is not entirely surprising. Urban residents tend to be a lot more liberal than suburbanites, as evidenced by the fact that President Bush and other Republican contenders fared extremely poorly in the nation's cities while they were prevailing nationwide last November. And, with the federal and state governments cutting services at just about every turn, voters recognize that local government is the last line of defense for social services and the first line of offense in the struggle to expand basic freedoms.

From San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to help gays and lesbians marry to Madison, Wisconsin's innovative living wage ordinance, cities are taking the lead. They are not limiting themselves to local debates. More than 140 communities, including Madison, endorsed "Cities for Peace" resolutions opposing the rush to war with Iraq in 2003, and more than 350 communities have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act's assaults on civil liberties. Many of the cities that are protesting the Patriot Act have put their dissent into action with initiatives to prevent federal investigators from spying on what citizens are reading.

Across the country, municipal activists are examining new steps that can be taken to put power in the hands of the people rather than multinational corporations. Cities are taking steps to expand access to the internet and beat down cable rates. They are developing "buy local" initiatives that help farmers and small businesses thrive. They are lobbying against free-trade pacts that shutter factories and threaten environmental protection laws, and they are expanding the boundaries of democracy with electoral reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting.

Unfortunately, national groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are behind the curve. Many of them are so closely tied to the same corporations that warp policy- making at the federal and state levels that they discourage the sort of progressive innovation that has made the nation's cities into the laboratories of democracy that states such as Wisconsin and Oregon were in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.

Concerned about the failure of the US Conference of Mayors to embrace and encourage progressive policy making, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz began working with the University of Wisconsin's Center on Wisconsin Strategies and other groups to develop a new vehicle to get progressive mayors talking with one another and working together.

Beginning Thursday, roughly a dozen mayors from around the country -- including top officials from Anchorage, Alaska; Burlington, Vermont; and Salt Lake City -- will huddle with some of the nation's top urban policy thinkers at Wisconsin's Wingspread Conference Center. The three-day gathering represents an important stride for urban leaders. Cities are already in the forefront of progressive policy making. But organized cities could be the alternative to the drift to the right at the state and national levels.

It's a new century. Isn't it about time for a new Progressive Era with cities as the laboratories of democracy?


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial."

Disunited Opposition to Gonzales

Much was said in the Senate during the debate over the nomination of Alberto Gonzales. But it fell to the two senators with the most powerful records of upholding the Constitution to sum up the arguments against making the disgraced White House counsel the 81st Attorney General of the United States.

One decried Gonzales's shameful record:

"I simply cannot support the nomination of someone who, despite his assertions to the contrary, obviously contributed in large measure to the atrocious policy failures and the contrived and abominable legal decisions that have flowed from this White House," said the dean of the Senate, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

The other senator decried Gonzales's refusal to renounce that record or to suggest that he would set a higher standard as the federal government's chief law enforcement officer.

"Judge Gonzales too often has seen the law as an obstacle to be dodged or cleared away in furtherance of the president's policies," said Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who recalled that during the nominee's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, "He simply refused to say without equivocation that the president is not above the law. The Judiciary Committee and the American people deserve to hear whether the next attorney general agrees that the president has the power to disobey laws as fundamental to our nation's character as the prohibition on torture."

In an honest debate, those two arguments would have prevailed.

But the Senate is no longer a forum for honest debate. So it was always certain that the Republican majority would muster the votes to confirm another of President Bush's Cabinet picks. That they did on Thursday.

But what was remarkable was that six members of what is supposed to be an opposition party joined with the Republicans to rubber stamp a nominee whose unapologetic disregard for the rule of law should have disqualified him from service as a town constable.

The final vote in the Senate was 60 to 36 in favor of confirming Gonzales. By most measures, that is a significant show of opposition. In fact, it is the second largest vote against a nominee for attorney general since 1925. Only outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft drew more "no" votes.

Make no mistake, the level of opposition to Gonzales was inspired by the nominee's own appearances before the Judiciary Committee. Had Gonzales acknowledged the legitimate concerns about his role in developing and circulating administration memos that condoned the use of some types of torture against suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, he would not have faced the level of opposition that he did. But Gonzales was evasive and equivocal in answering questions about whether he would choose to follow the law of the land or the Bush administration's political agenda.

"When Mr. Gonzales was nominated several weeks ago, I didn't know a single member of this body, Republican or Democrat, who had expressed any intention to vote against this nominee," said Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut. But, after reviewing the Gonzales's testimony, Dodd was forced to ask: "What does it say about our nation's commitment to the rule of law that this nominee will not say that torture is against the law?"

The only answer was that every member of the chamber faced a simple test Thursday: A senator could vote for Gonzales or for the rule of law. But a senator could not do both.

Accordingly, Feingold and Dodd, both of whom supported Ashcroft on the principle that a president has a right to name his Cabinet except in extraordinary circumstances, voted against confirming Gonzales.

But six Democrats did not. Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ken Salazar of Colorado chose ignore concerns about nominee's record and his disregard for the rule of law.

Those votes are significant, and not merely because of what they say about these individual senators. Had five of these senators indicated their opposition to Gonzales, Democrats could have mounted a filibuster, blocking the progress of the nomination at least until Gonzales addressed the critical question of whether he would follow the law or the marching orders of the White House.

Early in the week, Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, discussed the prospect of mounting a filibuster against the nomination. But the idea had to be dropped because, while there was widespread opposition to confirming Gonzales, Kennedy and his allies could muster the 41 votes needed to maintain the filibuster in the face of united Republican support for Gonzales.

The Republicans were, indeed, united.

The Democrats were not. As a result of the positions taken by Democrats Mary Landrieu, Joe Lieberman, Bill Nelson, Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor and Ken Salazar, Alberto Gonzales has been sworn in as Attorney General without ever having to clarify the most fundamental questions about his commitment to the rule of law.


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial."

Rebuke Gonzales and Torture

There is not much chance that the full Senate will block the nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to serve as Attorney General. But, as the vote approaches, critics of Gonzales have the potential to garner a stronger vote against his confirmation than they did in one or both of the last two fights over controversial conservative nominees to guide the Department of Justice: Edwin Meese in 1985 and John Ashcroft in 2001.

Thirty-one senators -- all of them Democrats -- opposed Meese's confirmation, while forty-two senators -- again, all Democrats -- opposed Ashcroft.

It would be meaningful if foes of the Gonzales nomination in particular, and of the Bush Administration's callous approach to civil liberties and international law in general, could muster as many vote against the current nominee as they did against Meese. And, considering the fact that there are fewer Democrats in the Senate now than in 2001, it would be exceptionally significant if they could equal the anti-Ashcroft vote.

Neither prospect is beyond the realm of possibility.

Unlike Meese, who gained a reasonable level of support from a still-substantial caucus of conservative Democrats, and Ashcroft, a former senator who garnered the votes even of some liberal Democrats with whom he had served, Gonzales has very little claim on Democratic support. Additionally, he could lose the votes of one or more Republicans.

Here are the particulars:

* When the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended approval of the Gonzales nomination, it did so along precise partisan lines. Ten Republicans voted for Gonzales, while eight Democrats voted against him. The Democratic unity is significant, as it was lacking in 2001. That year, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the chamber, broke with his fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats. Along with Connecticut's Chris Dodd and a handful of other Democrats, Feingold has argued that Presidents have a right to select the Cabinet that they want. But Feingold always promised that he would make an exception if a nominee's record or actions raised serious concerns about ethics or competence. After grilling Gonzales at length during a Judiciary Committee hearing in early January, Feingold said he was not confident that Gonzales would respect the rule of law. Accordingly, he voted against confirming the nominee. The Feingold break is significant, as he has credibility with Democrats who usually refuse to oppose Cabinet nominations. Additionally, Feingold has a measure of across-the-aisle credibility with moderate Republicans who see the Wisconsinite as one of the few senators who tends to rise above partisanship.

* There is a widespread sense in the Senate that objections to Gonzales are more serious than those raised with regard to Ashcroft. Ashcroft, a member of the Senate until just days before the vote on his nomination for Attorney General, had raised the hackles of grassroots activists who were concerned that he was a rigid ideologue -- unyielding in his opposition to abortion rights, unsympathetic to civil liberties, and frequently insensitive to civil rights. While those concerns were legitimate and clearly consequential for millions of activists and a good many senators, the objections to Gonzales are more specific and shocking. Not only did Gonzales solicit and approve legal memoranda that gave permission to US troops and the Central Intelligence Agency to torture Iraqi prisoners and al-Qaida suspects, he also ridiculed the 1947 Geneva Convention as "quaint" and argued that it did not apply to Taliban and al-Qaida operatives captured in Afghanistan. Even worse, as Delaware Democrat Joe Biden noted, Gonzales "utterly failed" to "own up" to his role in developing a legal memorandum that said a U.S. soldier or civilian official who was accused of violating U.S. statutes that make it illegal to torture a suspect could invoke national defense concerns in order to avoid prosecution. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, provided appropriate perspective when he explained, "The attorney general's duty is to uphold the rule of law, not to circumvent it. The Administration has a large and growing accountability deficit, and as this confirmation process draws to a close, I must protest that the stonewalling continues."

* Beyond the Judiciary Committee, Senate Democrats appear to be more united in their concern about the Gonzales nomination than they were with regard to Meese and, probably, Ashcroft. At least one Democrat will back Gonzales -- Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat who faces a tough reelection race in 2006. But Nelson's defection could be isolated. The decision of Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, a centrist with hawkish views regarding national defense issues, to oppose the nomination of Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State provided evidence that the desire to stand up to the Bush administration runs deep -- especially among Democrats who, like Bayh, entertain hopes of seeking the party's 2004 presidential nomination. If Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Colorado, and Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, can hold the vast majority of their caucus together in opposition to Gonzales, then there might actually be room for outreach to Republicans who are ill at ease with the administration's approach to the Iraq war. First on that list is Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, who opposed the 2002 use-of-force resolution and remains a thoughtful critic of the misadventure. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who have shown a measure of independence in the past and who represent a state where there is strong anti-war sentiment, could be vulnerable to the right level of grassroots pressure -- although they will be inclined to stand with Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, a fellow Republican moderate, who is backing Gonzales.

With Democrats refusing to filibuster the nomination, the safe bet is that Gonzales will be confirmed. But it does not have to be easy. And it does not have to be simply an honorable stand by a circle of liberals -- as was seen when 12 Democrats and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords opposed Rice's nomination for Secretary of State. This can be a serious challenge to the Bush Administration's wrong-minded war, its abuses of civil liberties, and its callous disregard for the rule of the law. Indeed, if the Bush administration is to be served notice that it will not be allowed to run roughshod over Congress for another four years, then it is essential that the vote against the Gonzales nomination be as strong as the grassroots opposition to this exceptionally poor pick for this exceptionally important position.


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial."

Iraq: Images vs. Reality

The images of Iraqis crowding polling places for that country's first free election in a half century were both moving and hopeful. The voting, while marred by violence, irregularities and boycotts, went off more smoothly than even the most optimistic members of the Bush administration had dared predict.

Unfortunately, President Bush and his aides could not let the images speak for themselves. The White House spin machine had to declare, even before the last votes were cast, that what happened Sunday was a "turning point" in the painful history of that battered country.

The claim is another example of the sort of wishful thinking that has so frequently trumped reality when it comes to the administration's approach to Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general.

Invariably, when the Bush administration tries to tell the world how to interpret images from Iraq, it leaps to conclusions that are far removed from reality.

For instance, the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media spun images of Saddam Hussein firing an ancient rifle to suggest that the Iraqi leader was a madman who would soon be brandishing more devastating weapons. Thus, pictures of a thug acting thuggish were used to turn the discourse leading up to the invasion of Iraq into a discussion of nothing but weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and "threats" that were not real.

After the invasion, the Bush spin machine used manufactured image of a handful of Iraqis toppling a statue of the deposed Iraqi dictator to suggest that the mission had been accomplished. But thousands of American casualties attest to the fact that it takes more than one fallen monument to win the hearts and minds of the people of an occupied land.

Then, the spin machine used the image of a captured Saddam Hussein to suggest that the insurgency against the U.S. occupation had lost its touchstone and would soon fade. But the insurgency only strengthened in the months after Hussein was incarcerated.

So when President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, their allies in Congress and their media acolytes claim that the images of Iraqis voting should be seen as a sign that a critical turning point has been reached, Americans -- not to mention Iraqis -- have good reason to be dubious.

Yes, of course, it is good that Iraqis are voting. But, after so many false starts, the test of whether this election is actually a turning point will not be met by mere images of ballots sliding into boxes. It will be met only by reality. And the reality that will matter is that of an Iraqi government standing on its own two feet, organizing the policing and the defense of that country, managing it's oil wealth and establishing relations with the rest of the world based on its needs -- not the dictates of an occupying force.

According to polls conducted just before Sunday's voting, the vast majority of Iraqis see the U.S. forces that are on the ground in Iraq as an occupying army. The same surveys show that the majority of Iraqis want the U.S. forces to leave.

If Sunday's elections in Iraq were both legitimate and consequential, if they selected a government that is representative of the Iraqi people, and if that government has the authority to set the course for what should be a sovereign country, then one of its first acts would by any reasonable calculus be to ask the United States to establish a timetable for the rapid withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraqi soil. After all, unless President Bush has come up with new definitions for words such as "freedom" and "democracy," it would seem that such an action would be in entirely the spirit of his inaugural address.

That image of a freely elected Iraqi government, fully empowered to take charge and determined to implement the will of the people who elected it, would indeed be worthy of celebration by those of who cherish democracy -- in Iraq and in the United States.

Until it is produced, however, the rational reaction to the latest set of images from Iraq is a skepticism that the Bush administration -- and too much of the American political class and media -- still seems to be incapable of mustering.


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial."

Occupation Thwarts Democracy

Under pressure from the Bush Administration, political parties campaigning in this weekend's so-called "election" in Iraq did not proposed timetables for the withdrawal of US troops from their homeland.

This constraint upon the debate effectively denied the Iraqi people an honest choice. Polls suggest that the majority of Iraqis favor the quick withdrawal of US forces, yet the voters of that battered land were cheated out of a campaign that could have allowed them to send a clear signal of opposition to the occupation.

Despite this disconnect, when the voting was done, Administration aides declared a victory in President's Bush's crusade for "liberty." And thus was born the latest lie of an Administration that has built its arguments for the invasion and occupation of Iraq on a foundation of petty deception and gross deceit.

That democracy has been denied in Iraq is beyond question. The charade of an election, played out against a backdrop of violence so unchecked that a substantial portion of the electorate-- particularly Sunni Muslims--avoided the polls for reasons of personal safety, featuring candidates who dared not speak their names and characterized by a debate so stilted that the electorate did not know who or what it is electing.

Now that this farce of an "election" in Iraq is done, the fight for democracy should move from Baghdad to Washington. It is in the US Capitol that members of Congress, if they are serious about spreading democracy abroad and strengthening it at home, need to begin advocating for the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Americans need to recognize that, in addition to the lives and dollars this occupation has cost the United States, it has also assaulted democratic ideals handed down by the founders of America's experiment with democracy. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their kind did not warn casually against the "entangling alliances" that go with empire building. Having revolted themselves against an occupying force, they well recognized the necessity that democracy be homegrown.

"We should have nothing to do with conquest," warned Jefferson, who believed the US must lead by example, not by force. The invasion and occupation of other lands would, the founders feared, turn America into precisely the sort of empire against which they had so recently rebelled.

When he served as Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams explained the principle best: "(America) knows best that by enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom."

None of the twisted "spin" about spreading democracy that will be mouthed in coming days by members of the Bush Administration, its allies in Congress and its amen corner in the media will be sufficient to counter the truth handed down by those who founded the American democracy.

Liberty is not spread at gunpoint, nor by the occupation of distant lands. There will be no real democracy in Iraq until the occupation of that country has ended.


John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial."

Boxer Rebellion Spreads

Give Barbara Boxer credit for sparking the most engaged debate that the Senate has yet seen over the Bush Administration lies that led the United States into the quagmire that is Iraq.

Boxer, the California Democrat who has been increasingly vocal in her objections to the Administration's reign of error and excess, seized the opening provided by President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice to serve as Secretary of State to try and force a necessary discussion about the misstatements, misconceptions and misdeeds that Rice and others in the Administration used to make the "case" for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And, to the surprise even of some war foes, she got it.

Yes, of course, Rice's confirmation was certain. In a Senate where the balance is now tipped 55-45 toward a Republican caucus that for the most part puts party loyalty above duty to country, and where there are still too many Democrats who continue to preach the failed "can't-we-all-just-get-along" mantra that has relegated the party to minority status, there was never any chance that the national security advisor's record of failure and deception would prevent her from taking charge of the State Department.

But Rice's road to Foggy Bottom proved to be far rockier than had been expected. Tuesday's Senate debate on her nomination was one of the most charged that the chamber has seen in recent years, and while Rice survived, she did not finish the day unscathed. Senator after Senator rose to recall what Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, described as Rice's "false reasons" for going to war, and to charge, as Kennedy did, that had Rice told the truth "it might have changed the course of history."

Though he and others were eloquent in their critique of Rice on Tuesday, the person who changed the course of history with regard to the debate over the Bush Administration's nominee for Secretary of State was not Kennedy, nor West Virginia's Robert Byrd, nor any of the other more senior senators who ripped Rice. Rather, it was Barbara Boxer, the diligent if not always prominent senator from the Golden State.

When Rice appeared on January 18 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on which Boxer sits, it was the California Senator who did the heavy lifting. She began by announcing that, "I will...not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on truth." And she then detailed the role that Rice played in creating the foundation of lies for the war.

"Perhaps the most well known statement you have made was the one about Saddam Hussein launching a nuclear weapon on America, with the image of a 'mushroom cloud.' That image had to frighten every American into believing that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of annihilating them if he was not stopped," said Boxer, who then announced that, "I will be placing into the record a number of other such statements which have not been consistent with the facts nor the truth."

Then Boxer hammered home the point that really mattered: That when Rice and her team lied, people died.

"This war was sold to the American people--as Chief of Staff to President Bush Andy Card said--like a 'new product.' You rolled out the idea and then you had to convince the people, and as you made your case, I personally believe that your loyalty to the mission you were given overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Bixer calmly declared. "That was a great disservice to the American people. But worse than that, our young men and women are dying. So far, 1,366 American troops have been killed in Iraq. More than 25 percent of those troops were from California. More than 10,372 have been wounded."

When Boxer read out the statistics, it was a devastating moment -- and a rare one. Seldom do Senators accuse prospective Cabinet members of lying. Rice knew she was taking a harder hit than anyone had expected. The nominee tried to get the upper hand with classic Washington spin. "Senator," Rice whined, "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It's not in my nature. It's not in my character. And I would hope we could have this conversation...without impugning my credibility or my integrity."

Rice's problem was that her credibility and integrity had been impugned--not by Boxer but by the nominee herself. All Boxer did was bring Rice's deceptions to light and, perhaps most significantly, to link them to the continuing crisis in Iraq. In so doing, she shamed a number of her fellow Democrats into joining her in opposition not just to Rice but to the Administration's entire approach to the war.

Tuesday's Senate debate was distinguished by the bluntness of the criticism of Rice's record. "She exaggerated and distorted the facts," said Michigan's Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton announced that he was opposing Rice's nomination in order to hold the Administration accountable for its lies. "I don't like impugning anyone's integrity," Dayton said. "But I really don't like being lied to--repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally."

"My vote against this nominee is my statement that this administration's lies must stop now," the Minnesotan explained.

Other senators were equally pointed in their condemnations of the nominee.

"Dr. Rice is responsible for some of the most overblown rhetoric that the administration used to scare the American people," thundered West Virginia's Byrd, who argued that, "Her confirmation will most certainly be viewed as another endorsement of the administration's unconstitutional doctrine of preemptive war, its bullying policies of unilateralism, and its callous rejection of long-standing allies."

Byrd remarks were, as always, historically rich and intellectually powerful. But the dean of the Senate did not hesitate to give credit where credit was due.

Recalling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee session at which his colleague from California had grilled Rice, the senior Senator said, "I was particularly impressed by Senator Boxer, who tackled her role on the committee with passion and forthrightness..."

Expressing his dismay with Republicans who have accused Senate Democrats of engaging in "petty politics" by demanding a debate on Rice's nomination, Byrd argued that, "Nothing could be further from the truth. The Senate's role of advice and consent to presidential nominations is not a ceremonial exercise."

Byrd was right to assert that the Senate's constitutionally dictated "advice and consent" duty "is not a function of pomp and circumstance" and that senators must never "acquiesce mutely to the nomination of one of the most important members of the President's Cabinet."

He was equally right to recognize the critical role that Boxer played in assuring that so many Democratic senators recognized their responsibility to assume that the consideration of Rice's nomination was something more that "a ceremonial exercise."

An Empty Exercise in Deceit

President Bush has not lost his flair for irony.

Just as the President hit the point in his second inaugural address where he declared to the dissidents of the world that "when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," authorities were removing peaceful protesters from the regal one's line of sight.

It was a similar juxtaposition of lofty rhetoric and less-than-lofty deeds that made the first term of the Bush presidency so unsettling to thinking people in the United States and abroad. And nothing in Thursday's inaugural ceremony suggested that the second term would be any better. Even as American forces remained mired in the quagmire of Iraq into which they were led by the Bush Administration's deliberate misreading of intelligence information, the President offered no indication whatsoever that he had learned from the mistakes and misdeeds of his first term.

Bush's lack of self-reflection belied the occasionally humble notes struck during his twenty-minute address. And it called into question the speech's bold assertions:

§ "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen," said Bush, who declared, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling." Sounds great. But should anyone read that as an abandonment of the doctrine of preemptive war that served as an excuse for the unilateral invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq during the President's first term? The President provided no such indication, and his record recommends the most extreme skepticism.

§ "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny," Bush said as he specifically addressed dissidents around the world, urging them to resist oppression and issuing that ringing promise that, "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." Does this mean that when challenges are mounted to the oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or elsewhere, the United States will take the side of the rebels? Can we expect the United States to impose trade sanctions on China because of that country's brutal occupation of Tibet, its jailing of dissidents and its smashing of movements for trade unionism, religious freedom and democracy? If the leaders of Russia continue to dismantle that country's freedoms, will that put them on the wrong side of the United States? The sad truth is that Bush's Republican allies continue to ridicule former President Jimmy Carter for attempting to use economic sanctions and other diplomatic tools to oppose tyranny.

§ "America's influence is considerable, and we will use it competently in freedom's cause," the President announced. That's a reasonable sentiment. But should anyone take this as an acknowledgment that poor planning, self-delusion and isolation from the world made the Iraq occupation the mess that it is? Or that the United States will now set a different course? Read Sy Hersh's latest report in The New Yorker on maneuvering within the Administration to launch a guaranteed-to-be-disastrous war with Iran and you will have a hard time believing that competence and common sense have won out.

§ Speaking of what he called the "essential work at home," the President said he was determined to "make our society more just and equal." But how does he reconcile that pledge with the growing gap between rich and poor, assaults on affirmative action programs that allow victims of past discrimination to get an equal footing in society, and scheming to dismantle the safety-net protections of Social Security, Medicare and other programs?

§ The President affirmed his faith in "the durable wisdom of the Constitution." That's a fine choice of words. But does that mean that a second Bush Administration will begin dismantling the Patriot Act and other policies that undermine constitutional protections? Does that mean that he will refuse to nominate anyone to the federal bench who does not respect the Constitution's well-defined right of privacy--particularly as it relates to a woman's right to choose?

It would be appealing to take George W. Bush at his word. But, considering his track record, that is not an option. In fact, if history is a guide, the one guarantee we have is that Bush's words will not match his deeds. And his inaugural address will be remembered as nothing more than an empty exercise in deceit.

Syndicate content