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Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don't matter. That's what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday's pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.
They are, of course, wrong.
Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts--even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon's collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.
Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party's top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had "the dry heaves for three days" after the loss.
Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?
Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.
But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.
But while Democrats were celebrating Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it is important to remember that the South Dakota result is not a guarantee of Democratic destiny. It is merely a indication of what might come to pass if Democrats get their act together this fall.
For Democrats and Republicans, however, such signals matter.
During the contest that preceded Herseth's election by a 51-49 margin over Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday's statewide voting, the Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees poured more that $2 million into television advertising that targeted fewer than 300,000 South Dakota voters. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush swept into the Plains state to campaign for Diedrich. And, after Herseth won, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring early Wednesday morning that "Stephanie Herseth's win to tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change."
Allowing for predictable hyperbole, Pelosi is hitting closer to the mark than the Republicans who claim this one election has no meaning. The Democrats do, indeed, seem to be on something of a roll in special elections for the House this year.
Between 1991 and 2003, Democrats failed to win a single special election for a House seat vacated by a Republican.
In 2004, Democrats have won two such seats: First in the rural 6th District of Kentucky, where former state Attorney General Ben Chandler secured a lopsided special election victory in February, and now in South Dakota with Herseth.
For all the protests from Republicans about how the South Dakota race was unique, it is difficult to imagine that if President Bush were riding high in the polls and public confidence in the stewardship of Republican House and Senate leaders were equally high Herseth could have prevailed. South Dakota knows how to vote for Democrats--the state sends two Democratic senators to Washington--but the House seat Herseth won had been safely in Republican hands for years. Republican Rep. John Thune regularly won the seat with as much as 75 percent of the vote until he gave it up in 2002. Former Governor Bill Janklow then won the seat with a solid margin over Herseth. (Janklow's involvement in a deadly driving accident cut his Congressional career short, provoking the special election.)
To get a sense of how much of a breakthrough Herseth's win represents for South Dakota Democrats, remember this: The party now controls the state's entire Congressional delegation for the first time since 1937, when the popular programs of Frankin Roosevelt's New Deal helped Democrats to break the historic Republican hold on the rural states of the upper Midwest.
It has been a very long time since Democrats were on the rise in rural America, in large part because the party has abandoned the economic populist, pro-small farmer themes that were traditionally its greatest strength.
Herseth's homey campaign embraced populist economic messages about the need to protect family farms and revitalize rural America. After she lost the 2002 race, Herseth went to work with the South Dakota Farmers Union, the local affiliate of the progressive National Farmers Union, and her campaign this year reflected an understanding of the issues that most concern rural America. She criticized free-trade agreements that have harmed the interests of farmers and rural communities and she strongly supported Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation that protects the interests of US farmers. In addition, Herseth attacked the Bush Administration's assaults on Medicare and the President's promotion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations that ship jobs overseas.
Is there a recipe here for Democrats as they seek to win the dozen seats they need to retake control of the House? Perhaps.
Referring to those 2000 presidential election maps that showed states won by George Bush colored red, Representative Bob Matsui, the Californian who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now says that, "Democrats can win in red states. Democrats can win in rural districts that have traditionally been in the hands of Republicans."
Matsui is getting to the point that matters. With Bush in trouble, his coattails are going to be far more slippery than they were in 2000 and 2002, even in states where he is still likely to beat Democrat John Kerry. That creates an opening for Democrats in rural areas that the party has neglected over the past decade. But it is just an opening; after years of focusing far too much attention on suburban districts, the Democratic party has lost touch with rural America. Candidates such as Herseth and Chandler, both of whom come from prominent Democratic families with deep roots in their states, can make up for the party's failings. But not every rural district will have a Herseth or a Chandler in the running. That means that the Democratic Party must change if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that the 2004 election season seems to have handed it.
Democrats need to develop a serious rural strategy, which echoes National Farmers Union stances on trade and farm policy and promises a measure of revitalization for regions that have been in decline sometimes for decades. If they do so, they could find that the dozen seats they need to retake the House are not located in the suburbs but in rural America.
Though it does not dominate the front pages in the same way that arguments about Vietnam medals and current war catastrophes have, one of the more bitter debates that has developed during the current presidential campaign involves the question of whether Catholics should vote for John Kerry, a Catholic, for president. The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, recently issued a pastoral letter arguing that Catholics ought not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage.
Kerry does support abortion rights and stem-cell research. He's not for same-sex marriage, but he's otherwise supportive of gay rights initiatives. So, in Bishop Sheridan's view, voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee would, at best, be wrong, and, at worst, downright sinful. And Sheridan is not alone in griping about Kerry's pro-choice stance; a number of bishops have threatened to deny communion to Kerry and other Catholic politicians who fail to follow church teachings on abortion and other hot-button social issues.
But what about politicians, like President Bush, who violate church teachings with regards to launching preemptive wars and imposing the death penalty? Should conservative Catholic politicians who back the president and his war be denied the Eucharist? Should their supporters sanctioned?
That's the critical question for the bishops who are going after Kerry, Wisconsin Representative David Obey and other politicians who have not always followed church teachings on social issues but who hold views that are closer to those of the Vatican on economic issues, the death penalty and matters of war and peace.
Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and author who is one of America's most prominent Catholic thinkers, raised the question well when he noted recently that, "(The) Pope and the national (Catholic) hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?"
Don't get Greeley wrong. He's opposes abortion, and that puts him at odds with Kerry.
But, as Greeley notes, abortion and gay rights are not the only issues this fall. And, on some key issues, Catholics like Greeley find themselves close to Kerry, a death penalty critic who, though he is hardly anti-war, has challenged the Bush administration's management of the current fight.
"I subscribe to the consistent ethic of life that the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin enunciated some years ago," explains Greeley. "I believe abortion is wrong. I believe the death penalty is wrong. I believe preemptive war is wrong. I will take seriously the 'pro-life' enthusiasts when they are ready to protest against and denounce the death penalty. I will take them seriously when they also denounce criminally unjust wars."
Greeley gets to the heart of the matter when he suggests that, by focusing so much criticism on the pro-choice stances of Kerry and other politicians and failing to address so many other issues, church leaders such as Bishop Sheridan run the risk of appearing to be "doing the Republican National Committee's work for it."
LOS ANGELES -- John Kerry is going to have to decide who he wants to be when he grows up politically. His post-primary campaign has been so dramatically unfocused and ineffectual that -- even as George Bush has taken more serious blows to his credibility than any sitting president since Richard Nixon in the first years of his second term -- Kerry has not been able to open up a lead nationally or in the essential battleground states.
Kerry is making moves to muscle up his Democratic presidential candidacy, with a $25-million let's-make-some-introductions advertising campaign, an effort to sharpen his message and a sped-up vice presidential search. The next month will be critical. If he can open a five- to eight-point lead nationally and establish leads that mirror those of Al Gore's 2000 wins in Democratic-leaning battleground states, his campaign will be sufficiently renewed to make the race. If, on the other hand, he continues to hold even nationally and trail behind Gore's showings in the states that will tip the balance in the Electoral College, there will come a round of questioning -- prior to the Democratic National Convention in July -- about whether the party is making the right choice.
Kerry will still be the nominee. Modern political parties lack the flexibility to clean up messes, no matter how obvious the need. The was proven in 1996, when the Republican National Convention dutifully nominated Bob Dole, despite the fact that no honest observer thought he had a chance of winning.
Will Kerry be the Dole of 2004? That's the question that the Massachusetts senator needs to sort out this month.
The decisions Kerry makes now will determine whether his campaign is for real. And the pressure for some kind of signal is only going to increase as the month passes.
In southern California this week to contribute to Robert Greenwald's upcoming documentary on media issues, I had a chance to talk with political activists, journalists and entertainment-industry insiders. They were all for getting rid of George Bush. But they were also, to a one, convinced that Kerry's campaign wasn't doing what was necessary to accomplish that task. They still thought Kerry would carry California -- a must-win state for the Democrats -- but they were worried that he was slipping even there. And they were convinced that his failure to come on strong was eliminating enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Writer and activist Arianna Huffington, who has written a good new book about the Bush crowd, Fanatics and Fools, was particularly concerned. A none-of-the-above voter in 2000, she's determined to achieve regime change in the White House this year and she recognizes that Kerry offers the only realistic hope for sending Bush back to Texas. But she is so worried about Kerry's cautious campaigning that she has penned a letter to the candidate, which she hopes hundreds of thousands of activists will sign. The letter urges the presumptive Democratic nominee to, "Offer voters a bold moral vision of what America can be. A vision that is bigger than the things that divide us. A vision that brings hope and soul back to our politics and appeals to more than voters' narrow self-interests. A vision that makes America once again a respected force for good in the world.
(You can learn more about Huffington's recent projects by visiting her www.fanaticsandfools.org website.)
I don't know whether a letter will get John Kerry's attention, let alone whether it will get him to recognize that his campaign really is in trouble. But I do know that it is right to target messages toward Kerry, himself.
Again and again, people asked me: Who is advising Kerry? The answer is that the names don't really matter.
Like any soon-to-be-nominated presidential candidate, Kerry is getting advice from every corner. The noxious Democratic Leadership Council, which every election season commands Democrats to run as Republican-lite centrists, is indeed bending his ear. But Kerry is getting advice from credible and competent sources, as well.
The problem is that the senator seems to be having a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to messaging.And, unfortunately, this is a challenge that only he is in a position to resolve.
No one else but the candidate can cure what ails this presidential campaign. That's because only the candidate can send the a broad and meaningful message that says his campaign really does promise fundamental change. Kerry cannot count on the "Beat Bush" message to carry him to victory in November. Nor should he assume that just promising to be kinder and gentler than Bush will be enough.
John Kerry needs to present himself as the candidate who offers America a clean break from Bushism.
If he does so, he will win.
If he fails to do so, he will be this year's Bob Dole -- without the sense of humor.
In another illustration of the current administration's commitment to keeping the American people in the loop, the White House demanded that there be no recording or formal transcription of today's joint interview of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by the 9/11 commission.
The members of the independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have accepted this ridiculous pretense because they know it is the only way to get the president and the vice president to aid efforts to understand and combat the threat of terrorism.
The lack of a recording or an official transcript will, legal scholars suggest, afford Bush and Cheney an opportunity to deny statements, question interpretations and challenge conclusions. "It gives them more maneuverability in case someone slips up or says something he regrets," explains New York University law Professor Stephen Gillers.
In other words, in the unlikely event that Bush or Cheney might let a snippet of truth slip out, the elaborate White House spin machine will be able to take advantage of the deliberately vague record to "clarify" the statement.
The absence of a taped record also allows the administration to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain why, when the commander-in-chief is asked questions, the vice president answers.
The reason for the tandem testimony by Bush and Cheney is, of course, all too obvious. Were the pair to testify apart from one another, their stories might well be different, as there is some doubt about the extent to which Bush was kept in the loop.
Despite the fact that the tandem testimony is necessary in order for Bush and Cheney to keep their stories straight, it is still awfully embarrassing. Does anyone really believe that the rest of the world has failed to notice that, when the leader of the most powerful country on the planet is asked to address paramount issues of national security, he must be accompanied by a minder?
The absurdity of the president and vice president demanding that there be no official record of their meeting with the commission would be the subject of a congressional outcry and a constant media battering of the administration if Bush and Cheney were members of another political party. Just imagine if Bill Clinton had asked that there be no official record of obviously troubling and politically damaging statements he made during the interviews and inquisitions of the Republican-sponsored "sexgate" investigations of the late 1990s. The screams of outrage would still be echoing today.
Of course, the issues being explored by the 9/11 commission are far more serious matters than those involved in the Clinton investigations, which argues even more strongly for a permanent and precise record of what is said.
But Bush and Cheney will get their pass from the commission, the Congress and a cheerleading media. The willingness of major media to go along with the charade is particularly galling, but not surprising in an era when the White House press corps tends to ask probing questions along the lines of "how high?" in response to presidential press secretary Scott McClellan's regular requests that they jump to the right.
As has so often been the case during this dark passage in the American journey, citizens seeking after an accurate report on the affairs of state will need to turn to "America's finest news source": The Onion.
The Onion's front page this week features a photo of Bush speaking as Cheney sips from a glass. The headline: "Cheney wows Sept. 11 commission by drinking glass of water while Bush speaks."
History usually provides a roadmap for the present. Unfortunately, leaders fail to consult the map.That's certainly been the case as the 9/11 Commission has prepared to hear behind-closed-doors testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush at the same time.
Members of the commission and, for the most part, members of congress, have accepted the secret-testimony arrangement. But why?
Presidents have testified before investigatory committees before. And they have done so on comparable issues. Former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us that in 1974, amid the national firestorm that followed President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon, Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee that was reviewing the pardon.
"The President came before the subcommittee, made an opening statement and was questioned by the House members. Although each of us had only five minutes, I was able to ask the President directly whether there had been a deal with Nixon about the pardon. The public could determine by Ford's demeanor and his words whether to believe his emphatic denial of any deal," recalls Holtzman, who as a young member of the House was a key player in the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the Watergate scandal.
"The fact that important questions could be posed directly to the President and the fact that the President was willing to face down his severest critics in public were healthy things for our country. And, not even the staunchest Republicans complained that the presidency was being demeaned."
By recalling the history, Holtzman reminds us that President Bush could, and should, simply appear before the 9/11 Commission. There is no Constitutional crisis here. There is no dangerous precedent that could be established. And there is no question of proportionality--certainly, the intensity of the demands for an explanation of the Nixon pardon can appropriately compared with those for an explanation of how the current administration responded to terrorist threats before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. "As with the Nixon pardon, the events of 9/11 have caused huge national concern," explains Holtzman. "The victims' families--as well as millions of others--have asked why it happened and what if anything could have been done to avert the tragedy. These are simple, reasonable questions."
The best response to those simple, reasonable questions, Holtzman argues, would be for Bush to volunteer to testify in public and under oath to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.
"Bush would be wise to take a page out of Ford's book. Americans could then decide themselves whether to agree or disagree with Bush's pre-9/11 conduct. They want to trust their President. They want to know that he acted with the best of motives, that he used good judgment and that he is a leader--in other words, that as chief executive, he knows when and how to mobilize the government to take action," Holtzman asserted, in an opinion piece she wrote this week for the New York Daily News.
"If Bush refuses to answer reasonable questions in public, the indelible impression is left that he has something to hide. That impression is reinforced by the White House's insistence that Vice President Cheney sit with Bush at the hearing. The President cannot afford to convey the image that he is afraid to appear on his own. And neither the 9/11 Commission nor the public should permit a behind-closed-door session for anything except national security information. The same principle should have applied to the testimony of former President Bill Clinton. "
Holtzman's wise comments beg one question: Why didn't anyone think to put this former member of Congress and native New Yorker on the 9/11 commission? There are a number of commissioners who share her experience--including, of course, Richard Ben-Veniste, who headed US Justice Department's Watergate Task Force from1973 to 1975. But it would seem that the commission could use someone who recognizes, as Holtzman does, that: "There is no better crucible than a public hearing to help ensure that the truth will come out."
Condoleezza Rice's amen corner on the right was going to hail her Thursday appearance before the 9/11 commission as a stunning success no matter what she said. And so they did, with President Bush declaring that she had done "a terrific job," Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Shelby describing her as "very candid" and radio personality Gordon Liddy announcing, "a star is born."
But that was just spin. On Thursday, a star flamed out. Permanently.
Despite the praise from her president and the Republican establishment that since the 1980s has been grooming her as a candidate for national office, Rice's appearance dealt her political ambitions a fatal blow.
This is not to say that Rice's performance was the complete disaster that her bitterest critics imagined. The national security adviser stayed on message, remained reasonably composed and delivered her talking points about as ably as a deputy press secretary. Admittedly, she seemed brittle and ill-prepared when questioned by Democrats Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer. She filibustered when it would have been better to be frank. And she did not inspire confidence in her abilities with the complaint that, while she had been warned about the presence of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States, she had not been told how to deal with them. But Republican commissioners, especially former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, eased the tension by tossing Rice enough softball questions so that she could appear to be in only slightly over her head.
Unfortunately for Rice, however, her testimony will be remembered for a single exchange.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she could recall the title of President Bush's daily briefing document for August 6, 2001, which crossed her desk more than a month before operatives associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Queda network attacked the world Trade Center and the Pentagon. After several inept attempts to avoid the question, Rice finally answered, "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
Rice knew she was in trouble; she claimed immediately that the August 6 briefing paper was a speculative document, not a real warning. The administration's defenders then spent the rest of the day trying to convince Americans that they had not heard what they had, in fact, heard. But, as 9/11 widow Lorie Van Auken correctly noted after the title was revealed, "That pretty much says it all."
What it says, above all, is that Condoleezza Rice will forever be remembered as the national security adviser who knew bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States but who, by all indications, felt no great sense of urgency about that threat. On "The Daily Show," host John Stewart simply played the tape of Rice's response to Ben-Veniste's inquiry. It got the best laugh of the night.
Fair or not, the impression that Rice created on Thursday will spell the end of her political prospects. She will never win a place on a national Republican ticket as a candidate for president or vice president. No matter how much Republican operatives may try to spin her back onto the short list, it is simply impossible to imagine that Rice, or anyone else, could survive the repeated airings of that exchange in an election year.
Because Rice has always been a political player, as opposed to a genuine security analyst or strategist, this is the dramatic news from her appearance before the 9/11 commission.
Remember, as recently as late February, political reporters and strategists were buzzing about the prospect that Rice would end up on a 2004 or 2008 GOP ticket. In late February, when rumors swirled that Vice President Dick Cheney might be dumped from Bush's ticket this year, the National Journal mentioned two possible replacements: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rice. The Reuters news service sent the story of the Rice-replaces-Cheney speculation around the world. Former presidential adviser Dick Morris announced that Rice was one of only two Republicans who could win the presidency in 2008 -- the other being Secretary of State Colin Powell. Conservative activists launched a "Bush-Rice '04" website at www.bushrice04.org, and declared, "our mission is to convince President Bush that his best chance at reelection, and the Republican party's best chance for victory in 2008, is to choose Condoleezza Rice as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election."
The Bush/Rice website will keep campaigning to make the national security adviser the Republican nominee for vice president. In low-level Republican circles, Rice will continue to be portrayed as vice presidential or presidential timber, just as some of the faithful continue to imagine that former Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris will someday be a U.S. Senator.
But it is a fool's mission now.
Condoleezza Rice is not finished as a Bush administration insider. But she is, unquestionably, finished as a candidate for vice president or 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..."
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.
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.
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?