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Edward Said closed one of his last published essays with the lines: "We are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problems is, to put it as plainly as possible, U.S. power. What the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy."
Said's frustration was obvious, but so too was the determination of the man Salman Rushdie once said "reads the world as closely as he reads books." No one worked harder and longer than Said to awaken Americans to the damage their government's policies had done to the prospects for peace and justice in the Middle East. It cannot be said that he succeeded in that mission, but nor can it be said that he failed. If successive presidents refused to listen to Said's wise counsel, millions of citizens were influenced directly and indirectly by his speeches, writing and tireless advocacy. To the extent that there has been a broadening of sympathy for the cause of Palestine and Palestinians in the United States in recent years -- especially among younger Americans -- it can be traced in no small measure to the work of the world-renowned scholar, author, critic and activist who has died Thursday at age 67 after a long battle with leukemia.
Born in 1935 in British-ruled Palestine, and raised in Egypt, Said came to the United States as a student. He would eventually become a professor at Columbia University and the author of internationally acclaimed books on literature, music, culture and imperialism. His groundbreaking 1978 book, Orientalism, forced open a long-delayed and still unfinished debate about Western perceptions of Islam.
Said was horrified by the ignorance and distrust of Islam, Arabs and, in particular, of Palestinians that he found in the United States. "Every empire... tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate. These ideas are by no means shared by the people who inhabit that empire, but that hasn't prevented the U.S. propaganda and policy apparatus from imposing its imperial perspective on Americans, whose sources of information about Arabs and Islam are woefully inadequate," Said wrote in July. "Several generations of Americans have come to see the Arab world mainly as a dangerous place, where terrorism and religious fanaticism are spawned and where a gratuitous anti-Americanism is inculcated in the young by evil clerics who are anti-democratic and virulently anti-Semitic."
Said bemoaned the "blind imperial arrogance" of the United States and argued that, "Underlying this perspective is a long-standing view -- the Orientalist view -- that denies Arabs their right to national self-determination because they are considered incapable of logic, unable to tell the truth and fundamentally murderous."
Echoing the concern he had expressed for many years, Said reminded his American readers that, "Since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, there has been an uninterrupted imperial presence based on these premises throughout the Arab world, producing untold misery -- and some benefits, it is true. But so accustomed have Americans become to their own ignorance and the blandishments of U.S. advisors like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who have directed their venom against the Arabs in every possible way, that we somehow think that what we do is correct because "that's the way the Arabs are." That this happens also to be an Israeli dogma shared uncritically by the neo-conservatives who are at the heart of the Bush administration simply adds fuel to the fire."
Forget about the economy. Forget about the environment. Forget about the mess that he has made of US relations with the rest of the world. The issue that is on George W. Bush's mind is more basic: Does a leader end up paying a political price if voters think he lied his country into an unwise and unnecessary war in Iraq?
For the answer to that question, the president and his aides might want to look to Britain, where Bush's closest comrade-in-arms before, during and since the Iraq invasion, Prime Minister Tony Blair, just took a political body blow.
In a multi-ethnic, working-class section of London that has for decades been a political stronghold for Blair's Labour Party, voters used a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Parliament to send the prime minister a message that has shaken the British political establishment. It is a message that ought to be heard, as well, in the United States.
In the parliamentary elections of two years ago that saw Blair's Labour Party sweep to victory across Great Britain, London's Brent-East constituency gave the Labour Party candidate 63 percent of the vote, for a majority of 13,047 votes over his closest challenger.
In the special "by-election" held Thursday to fill the vacancy created when the area's member of parliament died, the Labour Party candidate won only 34 percent of the vote. That 29 percent drop in support for Blair's party cleared the way for a headline-grabbing victory by the candidate of the Liberal Democrats, a third party that opposed the Bush-Blair rush to war.
The defeat marked Labour's first loss of a seat in a parliamentary by-election in 15 years. And the BBC described the swing by traditional Labour voters against the party as "one of the most stunning turnarounds in British electoral history."
No one doubts that anger over Blair's approach to the Iraq war, as well as doubts about his honesty, played a role in that turnaround.
Sarah Teather, a 29-year-old local charity worker and Liberal Democrat party activist, won the Brent-East seat after a campaign in which she said, "It has been inevitable as I have gone door-to-door in such a cosmopolitan area that the war in Iraq has come to the fore. People have said they feel let down and cheated." Teather, who serves on the local council for the neighborhood of Islington, where Blair made his home before he moved to 10 Downing Street, criticized Labour's increasingly conservative domestic policies, as well. But, after the votes were counted, London's Daily Mirror newspaper argued that, "Mr Blair was skewered by an angry backlash over the war in Iraq and a collapse in public trust."
"Labour found itself struggling against the perception that the government is untrustworthy," observed the Guardian newspaper.
The British press, which is far more aggressive than the U.S. media, has pursued stories about inconsistencies in Blair's arguments for going to war. That led to a parliamentary investigation of whether the prime minister and his aides "sexed up" a dossier making the case action against Iraq. (That dossier, which was released last fall, was used by the Bush administration to convince Congress to give the president the authority to attack Iraq. See "Bogus Blair, Bogus Bush" at: http://www.thenation.com/thebeat/index.mhtml?bid=1&pid=895)
Amid the controversy over charges that Bush and Blair inflated perceived threats in order to gain support for an attack on Iraq, David Kelly, a British scientist who had provided information to journalists, committed suicide. The suicide led to a high-profile investigation of charges that the Blair government had made life "hell" for Kelly, and that in a broader sense the government had sought to punish those who questioned government claims about Iraq's supposed stashes of weapons of mass destruction. In the course of the inquiry by Lord Brian Hutton, a respected senior jurist, Blair's closest aide, Alastair Campbell, has been forced to resign, and Minister of Defense Geoff Hoon has become the subject of widespread speculation that he too will have to go.
The political impact of the controversy over whether Britain was "spun into war" has been devastating for Blair. His approval ratings have plummeted -- according to a poll published by London's Daily Telegraph in late August, only 22 percent of respondents said they felt Blair's government was trustworthy.
But poll numbers can be disputed. Elections are the measures of voter sentiment that politicians take most seriously. And the Brent-East by-election was framed from the start as a test of Blair's personal popularity and the appeal of the war that he and Bush promoted.
Teather, who will become the youngest member of Parliament, celebrated her victory by declaring,"Tony Blair, I hope that you are listening tonight. The people of Brent have spoken for the people of Britain."
Considering the fact that Bush used Blair's doctored dossier in his campaign to convince Congress and the American people that war was necessary, that statement might be extended. As there have been no special elections for Congress in recent months, perhaps there is room for a coalition of the willing (to ask tough questions) that would say, "George Bush, we hope you were listening Thursday night. The people of Brent East have spoken for people all over the world who believe that you and Tony Blair need to be held accountable for your war in Iraq."
That is a theme that Democrats in Congress, and on the presidential campaign trail, need to embrace. While the debate about whether the Blair government lied Britain into war remains red hot, the discussion of Bush's claims regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has been allowed to cool somewhat since mid-summer. When Britain's main opposition party, the Tories, failed to challenge Blair effectively, Sarah Teather's Liberal Democrats filled the void. Instead of complaining about the Greens and the prospect of another presidential campaign by consumer activist Ralph Nader, Democrats should fill the void. They can start by following the lead of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who charged Thursday that Bush administration officials relied on "distortion, misrepresentation, a selection of intelligence" to press their case for war. "There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically," said Kennedy. "This whole thing was a fraud."
As the results from across the sea attest, that is a winning political message.
When the World Trade Organization's fifth ministerial conference in Cancun collapsed Sunday without reaching agreement on how to launch new free-trade initiatives, American activist Gretchen Gordon declared, "This is a major victory for the social movements of the world, and a reality the Bush administration can't ignore if it continues to pursue the same failed policies in other regional trade agreements."
Gordon, the director of the Washington-based Citizens Trade Campaign, was right to turn the attention to Bush. The collapse of the WTO's Cancun summit represents a serious blow for the president. How serious a blow remains to be seen -- with much of the impact to be determined by the willingness of Bush's Democratic challengers to make an issue of trade policy in the 2004 election campaign. But there is no question that the administration's free-trade policies and politics took a hit in Cancun. Gordon and her allies are hoping the blow could prove sufficient to weaken the president's secretive effort to negotiate a Fast Track agreement for a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would create a hemispheric corporate free-trade zone stretching from Argentina to Alaska.
The optimism and enthusiasm displayed by Gordon was echoed by her allies in the labor, farm and human rights organizations that worked around-the-clock in recent weeks to prevent the WTO from writing trade policies that would help global corporations to further dominate the economic, social and political life of the planet.
Developing countries walked out of the WTO meeting in Cancun after the United States, the European Union and Japan rejected demands for trade policies that address the needs of the world's poor, rather than the bottom lines of the multinational corporations that are the prime beneficiaries of WTO rule making. When they refused to negotiate any longer, the representatives of India, Brazil and smaller countries caused the collapse of what had been a critical gathering for the international organization that came into being nine years ago with a charge to define global rules for trade.
Groups representing workers, farmers, environmentalists and human rights campaigners the world over had organized to prevent the WTO from launching a new push to restructure trade rules. There was particular concern that an agreement reached in Cancun could lead to a major assault on the limited protections that remain for small farmers around the world. Such an initiative would have provided tremendous benefits for agribusiness corporations, but it could devastate family farms from Iowa to India.
Farmers from around the world traveled to Mexico to protest against the WTO's corporations-first, people-last agenda. One of their number, South Korean farm activist Lee Kyung-Hae, took his life in a tragic attempt to illustrate the message of the sign he carried: "WTO kills farmers."
The loud protests from farmers, workers and environmental activists were heard by negotiators for developing countries, if not by US representatives. That message was summed up by Mark Ritchie, president of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who said, "We can't continue a global trading system that primarily benefits the interests of multinational corporations and doesn't address the serious concerns of farmers, workers and people around the world."
No one lost more credibility in Cancun than President Bush. "The Bush administration calls itself the great promoter of democracy, free trade and the global trade system, but it just imploded the WTO summit by rejecting the demands of the majority of WTO signatory nations for a little democracy, free trade and multilateralism after those countries refused to sign off on the corporate agenda for the WTO pushed by the U.S. and its small rich-country coalition of corporate shilling," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch campaign.
The Bush Administration continues to position the US as the primary advocate for multinational corporations. And it is unlikely that the president, who collects most of his campaign money from individuals and groups associated with those corporations, will change course.
But it is possible to change the politics of the United States. As Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and to a slightly lesser extent former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, have long argued, trade issues must be discussed on the 2004 presidential campaign.
In 2000, Republican Bush and Democrat Al Gore sounded way too much alike on trade issues. Gore's failure to distinguish himself cost him votes in critical states such as Ohio, where a Democratic win would have tipped the electoral college in Gore's favor. Democrats who want to oppose Bush in 2004 appear to have learned from Gore's mistake. Kucinich greeted the news from Cancun by declaring, "Working people the world 'round have the same complaints about the WTO: it's bad for their jobs, bad for their livelihoods and bad for their income. Small farmers in Africa lose their jobs just like steelworkers in Ohio. The evidence of the failure of the WTO to deliver anything like the prosperity its promoters have promised is plain for everyone to see. That is why the WTO talks in Cancun collapsed, and that is why the US Congress should reevaluate the WTO and rewrite the trade agenda our trade representative advocates."
Kucinich and Gephardt are no longer alone in questioning the wisdom of the Bush administration's trade policies. As manufacturing job loss figures have continued to mount, most of the contenders -- with the exception of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a free trader every bit as militant as Bush -- have been talking tough on trade. Even former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a one-time defender of the corporate free-trade agenda, now says he favor policies that protect American workers and farmers.
Dean echoes Paul Wellstone, the late US senator from Minnesota, when the Vermonter claims on the campaign trail to be the candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Hopefully, he and other Democratic contenders will be inspired by the news from Cancun to echo Wellstone in a more substantial way. After activists halted the WTO's attempts to launch new free-trade initiatives in the fall of 1999, US Senator Paul Wellstone said Democrats needed to make a major issue of failed U.S. trade policies in order to distinguish themselves from Republicans. Gore and too many other Democrats failed to follow Wellstone's advice in 2000. If Democrats are to succeed in 2004, the contenders who would carry the party's banner into next year's contest with George W. Bush cannot afford to make the same mistake as their party's last presidential nominee.
Later this year, Rick Rubin's American Recordings label will release a collection of Johnny Cash songs including a collaboration between the legendary country singer and one of his greatest fans, the Clash's Joe Strummer. The pair's version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" will serve as a poignant reminder of why Cash, who died Friday at age 71, was so revered by his fellow musicians -- if not always by a music industry that had a hard time figuring him out.
"In a garden full of weeds," explained U2's Bono, Cash was "the oak tree."
Cash loved playing with younger artists who shared his recognition that a song ought to come with an edge -- and maybe even a little politics. His collaborations with Bob Dylan, U2 and Strummer, and the delight with which he covered songs by Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, Beck, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, made it impossible to slot Cash into the narrow categories where contemporary radio programmers consign artists. "He's an outsider, never been part of a trend," Rubin said of Cash.
In his remarkable 1997 autobiography, Cash reflected on a career that began with hit singles but eventually saw him searching for a proper record label -- a search that ended only when Rubin, a groundbreaking rock and rap producer, signed him to American Recordings and produced four starkly brilliant albums. When people wondered why a country singer was on his label, Rubin said, "A rock star is a musical outlaw and that's Johnny."
Cash embraced that outlaw image, singing in his signature song, "Man in Black":
"Well you wonder why I always dress in black/Why you never see bright colors on my back/And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone/Well there's a reason for the things that I have on/I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he's a victim of the times."
Later in the song, he referenced the war in Vietnam, singing: "I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been/Each week we lose a hundred fine young men."
Cash took sides in his own songs, and in the songs he chose to sing. And he preferred the side of those imprisoned by the law -- and by economics. Cash's obituaries are quick to quote the lines at the start of his classic song, "Folsom Prison Blues," which go:
When I was just a baby my mama told me son/Always be a good boy don't ever play with guns/But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die...
Later in the song about a prisoner listening to a passing train, however, Cash sings:
I bet there's rich folks eatin' in some fancy dining car/They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars/Well I know I had it comin' I know I can't be free/But those people keep a movin' and that's what tortures me
Though he was not known as an expressly political artist, Cash waded into the controversies of his times with a passion. Like the US troops in Vietnam who idolized him, he questioned the wisdom of that war. And in the mid-1960s, at the height of his success, he released an album that challenged his country's treatment of Native Americans. That album, Bitter Tears, featured an powerful version of Peter LaFarge's "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," a sad, angry rumination on the mistreatment of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois nation, and of how the US government "broke the ancient treaty with a politician's grin."
Years later, Cash would remember that, as he prepared Bitter Tears, "I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage; I felt every word of those songs, particularly 'Apache Tears' and 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes.' I meant every word, too. I was long past pulling my punches."
The Bitter Tears project inspired one of Cash's many disputes with a music industry that wanted him to entertain rather than educate.
"I expected there to be trouble with that album, and there was," Cash wrote in his autobiography. "I got a lot of flak from the Columbia Records bosses while I was recording it -- though Frank Jones, my producer, had the sense and courage to let me go ahead and do what I wanted -- and when it was released, many radio stations wouldn't play it. My reaction was to write the disc jockeys a letter and pay to have it published as a full-page ad in Billboard. It talked about them wanting to 'wallow in meaninglessness' and noted their 'lack of vision for our music.' Predictably enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on."
Even in the 1960s, Cash said, "craven worship of the almighty dollar" was interfering with the ability of artists to get good music heard.
Thirty years later, as Clear Channel and other radio conglomerates sucked what life there was out of radio, Cash would argue, "The very idea of unconventional or even original ideas ending up on ‘country' radio in the late 1990s is absurd."
In 1998, after Cash won the Grammy award for best country album, American Recordings purchased a full-page ad in Billboard that was addressed to country radio programmers who had failed to play his music. The ad featured a picture of a much younger Cash with his middle finger held high in a fierce gesture of defiance.
Even as Cash was widely honored in his last years, his music was seldom played on mainstream country radio. And, yet, Johnny Cash kept being heard, singing the last track of a U2 album, appearing in a haunting video that somehow found a place on MTV and joining in that one last "Redemption Song" with a late British punk named Strummer who recognized that no one rocked like the Man in Black.
The Federal Communications Commission's attempt to implement rule changes that would permit big media companies to dramatically extend their control over communications in the United States hit a surprising and potentially major road block Wednesday, when the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals halted implementation of the new rules.
After a two-hour hearing, the three-judge panel voted unanimously to stay the effective date for implementation of the FCC's rewrite of the ownership regulation and ordered that the prior ownership rules remain in effect pending a judicial review of the new rules. "This is a matter of significant public interest," explained Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes, while Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro suggested that the delay was appropriate because the courts need to resolve "a difficult, serious question" of whether the public interest was threatened.
The appeals court ruling was a stunning victory for the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based media activist group that is part of the broad coalition that has opposed FCC chair Michael Powell's push to implement radical changes in the rules governing media ownership at the national and local level.
Among the rule changes backed by Powell and the media companies is a scheme to increase the number of television stations that one company could own across the US to a level where one network could reach up to 45 percent of the national television audience. Another rule change is written to allow a single corporation to control the newspaper, television stations and radio stations in the same town.
Despite opposition from Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Rifle Association and dozens of other groups from across the political spectrum, the FCC voted 3-2 to make the rule changes on June 2. Since then, the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the move to allow television networks to expand their reach at the national level, while the Senate is moving on a number of fronts to overturn all the rule changes. (Senate Appropriations Committee votes on several moves to roll back the FCC rule changes are expected Thursday.)
The leading Senate advocate for overturning the rule changes hailed the appeals court decision to issue the stay -- and the suggestions from the jurists that the rule changes raised significant public-interest concerns. "The ruling recognizes what I hope most of the Senate recognizes: These rules are inappropriate," said US Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who said the decision would boost Senate efforts to roll back the rule changes.
Most of the focus of the broad-based opposition to the FCC rule changes has been on Congress, which has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of calls, emails and letters from Americans who want to prevent media consolidation. Activists tend to believe that Congressional action will ultimately be needed to block the rule changes. But the appeals court decision to stay implementation of the rule changes provides breathing room for those seeking to prevent a new wave of media consolidations at both the national and local levels. And the fact that the decision of the appeals court was unanimous suggests that legal strategies could prove to be more significant than initially expected.
For the FCC and the communications giants it has sought to serve, the appeals court ruling was another indication that it is difficult for independent observers to take seriously the suggestion that limits on media mergers and acquisitions might in any way harm the public interest. When lawyers for the FCC and the intervenors on its behalf -- Fox Entertainment Group, Inc.; Fox Television Stations, Inc.; National Broadcasting Company, Inc.; Telemundo Communications Group, Inc.; and Viacom, Inc. -- claimed during a hearing regarding the suit that the interests of media conglomerates would be harmed by any delay of acquisitions under the new rules, Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica retorted, "You couldn't have done it (used the opening provided by the rule changes to acquire new media properties) a month ago. If you can't on September 4 but you can on Oct. 4 or Nov. 4, is there a difference?"
The court's ruling answered that question by declaring, "At issue in this litigation are changes adopted by the FCC that would significantly alter the agency's ownership rules for multiple media properties, including national television networks, local broadcast affiliates, radio stations, and newspapers. Petitioner has alleged harms from industry consolidation contending they would be widespread and irreversible if they occurred. The harm to petitioners absent a stay would be the likely loss of remedy (the ability to reverse mergers and acquisitions) should the new ownership rules be declared invalid in whole or in part. In contrast to this irreparable harm, there is little indication that a stay pending appeal will result in substantial harm to the Commission or to other interested parties... Given the magnitude of this matter and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution, a stay is warranted pending thorough and efficient judicial review."
Those who have battled the FCC ownership rule changes on multiple fronts hailed the decision as a dramatic breakthrough. Though the court victory may only be temporary, US Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said, "The decision of the Third Court of Appeals is a major victory for the American people who, in my view, do not want to see media in America owned by a smaller and smaller number of huge multi-media corporations. This decision will give Congress time to pass legislation that will substantially increase media diversity, protect localism and allow for more competition."
The Philadelphia-based Prometheus Project has played a leadership role in advocating for the devlopment of low-power community radio stations. Arguing before the appeals court this week, lawyers for the group made the case that the ability to broadcast would be harmed by the expansion of already dominant media conglomerates. Samuel Spear, an attorney for Prometheus, said the group sought the judicial review because the rule changes would allow "the big media companies to grow bigger and to monopolize the industry more."
For the time being, at least, concern for the public interest in diverse ownerhip of the media has led the federal judiciary to prevent that growth.
On Labor Day, the starting point for the mad rush to this winter's Democratic presidential caucuses and primaries, several of the Democratic contenders could point to support they have received from the unions and union members that will be critical to securing the party's nomination to challenge George W. Bush. By any measure, however, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt owns the bragging rights. With the endorsement he received August 20 from the 300,000-member Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers (PACE) International Union, Gephardt now claims the support of a dozen major unions.
Gephardt is backed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the United Steelworkers of America; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers; the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees; the American Maritime Officers; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; the Office and Professional Employees International Union; and the Seafarer`s International Union. That's an impressive list, drawn from unions with long histories of friendly relations with Gephardt, the son of a St. Louis Teamster who during the presidencies of George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush positioned himself as labor's best ally in Washington. "We know Gephardt," said PACE President Boyd Young, when he announced his union's endorsement. The ties between Gephardt and many labor leaders run deep, and they often run strong – having been forged in difficult struggles to block Congressional approval of trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the 650,000-member steelworkers union endorsed Gephardt, it's president, Leo Gerard, described the Missouri congressman as someone who "shares our deeply-held conviction that America's trade policies are the cause of more than two million manufacturing jobs having been lost in recent years, and he has never failed to make the case, no matter the odds of victory."
That's high praise, indeed. But Gephardt will need more than kind words and the endorsements of a dozen unions to become "labor's candidate" in 2004. To secure the support of the AFL-CIO, which provided early and essential backing to Al Gore in his race against Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination in 2000, Gephardt needs the backing of unions representing two-thirds of the labor federation's 13 million members. He does not have it now, and he's unlikely to gain it by October, when a meeting of the AFL-CIO's board, on which the president's of the 65 unions that make up the federation sit, could make the designation.
Gephardt, whose slow-to-get-started campaign desparately needs the AFL-CIO endorsement to keep itself in contention, appears to be facing tougher than expected competition for the hearts and minds of union leaders and rank-and-file members. He's got two big problems: His cozier-than-necessary relations with the Bush administration during 2001 and 2002, including his support for the resolution authorizing the president to wage war against Iraq, cost him a great deal of credibility. Also, there is a good deal of uncertainty about whether the Missourian has what it takes to beat President Bush in 2004. Several industrial unions with substantial memberships in key states -- such as the United Auto Workers, a powerful force in the first-caucus state of Iowa and the early primary state of Michigan, as well as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which is strong in the Carolinas and New York -- remain skeptical about Gephardt's prospects. And the public employee and health-care sector unions that have some of the highest memberships among AFL-CIO affiliates -- such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, as well as the American Federation of Teachers – appear to be even less enamored of Gephardt.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was, for a time, seen as a serious contender for SEIU and AFSCME support, just as he was considered to be in the running for an early endorsement from the independent National Education Association. And Kerry has shown strength in other sectors; just before national leaders of the Teamsters union endorsed Gephardt, its second largest local in the country -- 20,000-member Local 705 in the Chicago area -- split and endorsed Kerry. "We wanted to give an early endorsement to John Kerry because he has always been a friend to the working men and women we represent and because we believe that he is the best candidate to beat George W. Bush," said Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Jerry Zero.
But Kerry's ability to present himself to unions as a frontrunner has been hampered by the surge of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who now leads Kerry and the other candidates in polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, California and other key states. With his history of supporting corporate free trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, Dean has had to work hard to connect with organized labor and there is no chance that he will get an early endorsement from the AFL-CIO. But Dean has made inroads among union members. He drew a rousing response during a recent appearance before a gathering of the California Teachers Association, a powerful NEA affiliate that represents 335,000 educators and school employees in that state.
More than 100 Iowa labor activists signed onto newspaper advertisements set for publication in the Labor Day editions of the Des Moines Register. In Iowa, as in a number of other states, union members are ill at ease with George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, and Dean has won points with his anti-war rhetoric and his proposals for increases in domestic spending.
"If we can afford to rebuild Iraq, then we can afford t rebuild our country," said Tom Gillespie, the president of the Iowa State Building and Trades Council, who signed the Labor for Dean ad.
With polls showing that Dean is already ahead of their man in Iowa, the Gephardt campaign responded to the Labor for Dean ad with a sharply-worded statement noting that, "Howard Dean was one of the leading governors to support NAFTA and even attended the initial White House ceremony with Canadian and Mexican leaders in 1993."
While Gephardt can easily argue that he has a sounder record of supporting labor's agenda than Dean, Gephardt cannot say that he has the best labor record among the nine Democratic contenders. Asked recently whether there was any candidate with a labor record to match Gephardt's, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney answered, "Dennis Kucinich."
Kucinich, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is even more passionate than Gephardt when it comes to criticizing NAFTA and other free-trade agreements. Kucinich, who carries a union card, says he wants to create "a workers' White House" and promises to end US participation in NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Those are big applause lines at union gatherings. Indeed, when Kucinich appeared in late August at the convention of the independent United Electrical workers union, he so impressed the delegates that they quickly passed a resolution that hailed Kucinich for "injecting into the primary process a sense of urgency with regard to the need to tackle the various crises facing working people, including the imperative to remove Bush from office in the November 2004 election." Noting that UE has never made a presidential primary endorsement, the statement endorsed by the delegates added that, "we are, however, proud to strongly urge UE rank-and-file members to seriously consider [Kucinich's] candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination."
While the enthusiasm of the UE delegates was good news for Kucinich, no one is suggesting that he has a shot at winning the coveted AFL-CIO nod. "The only person who has a chance [of securing the AFL-CIO endorsement] at this moment is Dick Gephardt," Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said in August.
But, on a Labor Day weekend when he would have liked to be celebrated as "labor's candidate," Gephardt is still struggling to secure the support he needs to claim the AFL-CIO endorsement that will almost certainly make or break his candidacy.
Faced with a national outcry so intense that Congress is moving to reverse his attempt to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell announced Wednesday that the FCC was launching a Localism in Broadcasting Initiative.
Powell says his agency is forming a task force to study how federal policies affect locally-oriented programming. In addition, the chairman says he also wants the commission to issue more licenses to not-for-profit groups seeking to set up low-power FM radio stations in their neighborhoods.
Both of those steps are appropriate. It is atrocious that the FCC has failed to study the impact on local programming of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other federal decisions that have promoted consolidation and conglomeration of radio station ownership -- ending hometown control of hundreds of stations and ushering in an era of homogenized music and shuttered local news departments. And the roadblocks erected by the FCC to the licensing of low-power stations have been indefensible.
But Powell deserves no praise. Throughout this spring's debate over whether to allow big media companies to consolidate their control over local markets -- by lifting restrictions that had prevented one firm from buying the daily newspaper, radio and television stations and the cable system in a single city -- Powell rejected concerns about damage to local content and control. "We should have vetted these issues before we voted," says FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who resisted Powell's rush to rewrite the ownership rules to benefit big corporations. "Instead, we voted; now we are going to vet. This is a policy of 'ready, fire, aim.'"
Copps has it exactly right. Powell is talking about localism now only because the House of Representatives has already moved to block one of the key rule changes while the Senate is preparing to consider a proposal to overturn all six changes that were approved June 2 by 3-2 votes of the FCC. There is nothing sincere about the chairman's "commitment" to localism. He is merely trying to avert Congressional intervention that could prevent him from delivering on the Bush administration's promise to make it possible for big media corporations (which also happen to be big campaign contributors) to expand their reach at the local and national levels.
If Congress backs off and the rule changes are implemented, however, localism will be destroyed even as it is studied. As Commissioner Copps says, "We now hear that there may be localism issues after all. But what's going to happen when we study localism over the next year? The answer is: deals, deals and more deals. The answer is more standardized and homogenized programming. The answer is more indecency on the people's airwaves. The answer is less diversity of viewpoint and less coverage of local news."
U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who has been spearheading Senate efforts to overturn FCC moves to allow consolidation of ownership of local media and the dramatic expansion of the number of television stations nationally that a network can own, echoed Copps' concern. "It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism," says Dorgan.
Dorgan knows that Powell's study will do nothing to preserve local programming. And the issuing of a few more low-power radio station licenses -- "a very small step in the right direction," says the Prometheus Radio Project's Pete Tridish, a veteran low-power radio activist -- is not going to balance off the loss of diversity and local programming that will result if FCC-approved rule changes are implemented.
Dorgan gets it. He's going ahead with the push to overturn Powell's rule changes, an initiative that is being encouraged by MoveOn.org and other activist groups. "The chairman's statements (Wednesday) do nothing to remove the need to revoke these rules," says Dorgan.
The headline in Tuesday's editions of London's Guardian newspaper read: "No. 10 knew: Iraq no threat."
The headline in London's Daily Mirror shouted: "NO THREAT -- Revealed: Email from Blair's top man said Saddam was NOT imminent danger." The lead editorial in The Independent newspaper declared, "Now we know that No 10 did order a rewrite of the dossier to justify war."
For the most part, American media is doing a lousy job of following the British investigation of how Blair and his aides spun the case for war with Iraq. From a journalistic standard, that's bizarre because the story of official deceit in Britain is also the story of official deceit in the United States.
When Bush was trying to con Congress into giving him a blank check to launch a war with Iraq last fall, the president's efforts were hindered by his rather serious credibility gap. Veteran members of the U.S. intelligence community were signaling -- from behind the scenes and, in some cases, publicly -- that they did not buy the argument that Iraq posed a serious enough threat to merit military action. And senior members of the House and Senate, including then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, who had been reading intelligence reports on Iraq since before Bush entered politics, were asking what had happened that would require a dramatic change in U.S. policy. Other members of Congress, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee, a Republican, said the U.S. should focus on the war against terrorism, as opposed to squandering valuable resources on a fight to remove a secular Iraqi leader who had always been at odds with the Islamic fundamentalists of the al-Qaeda network.
Bush was even having trouble with some top Senate Republicans, who were talking about the need to attach some strings to the resolution authorizing the administration to use military force against Iraq.
The president was able to evade those restraints, and to thwart serious Congressional debate on the whole Iraq issue, by flashing around a so-called "intelligence dossier" prepared by the office of British Prime Minister Blair. Widely viewed as a more moderate -- and, thus, credible -- player on the international stage than Bush, Blair was supposed to be the sensible partner in the emerging "coalition of the willing." And the report Blair's office published on September 24, 2002, less than three weeks before Congress approved Bush's request for authority to wage war, was taken seriously in Washington.
Dozens of members of Congress who had expressed doubts about the Bush administration's case for war say they were convinced by the Blair team's claim that Iraq was aggressively developing weapons of mass destruction and that those weapons would soon pose a serious threat to the world. Now, however, it turns out that the dossier was doctored. New revelations from Britain are confirming the skepticism of objective members of Congress -- including Graham, Feingold and Chafee -- who last fall rejected the so-called "evidence" as insufficiently credible to legitimize the blank check.
Britain's independent investigation, which is being led by Lord Hutton, a respected senior jurist, was launched to get to the bottom of questions raised by the apparent suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a British expert on chemical and biological weapons, who helped reporters expose the Blair team's manipulation of intelligence data. But it has turned into a broad examination that is considering information not merely regarding Kelly but the whole question of how Blair and his aides made the case for war.
On Tuesday, Hutton released copies of emails revealed that showed Blair's own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had cautioned against using the dossier to claim that Iraq posed anything akin to "an imminent threat."
Seven days before Blair's office released the dossier, Powell emailed top members of the prime minister's team to argue that, "We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that he (Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) is an imminent threat." After reviewing the evidence that had been accumulated, Powell wrote that the information "does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam."
The most damning line from one of Powell's emails explained that, after reviewing the intelligence data, the prime minister's chief of staff found it so thin that he said it would only be "convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced." As an analysis by The Independent noted, that statement "is extraordinary, and betrays the level of doubt within the Government" about the case that could credibly be made for war.
Blair and his top aides chose to disregard the cautions and hyped the dossier with claims that it confirmed Iraq's WMD program was "active, detailed and growing" and that Iraq might be able to launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of getting an order to do so. By the time the dossier got to Washington, the Bush team was treating this bogus claim as gospel. And, even after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Blair's dossier was a dubious document, Bush kept pumping up the supposed evidence.
This week's revelations about the extent to which Blair and his aides massaged and manipulated the intelligence data should suggest to members of the U.S. Congress that simply sitting back and waiting for revelations from the examination of Blair's deceptions is insufficient. It is time for American investigators to determine whether, in the midst of a debate about war and peace, Bush employed weapons of mass deception.
Anyone who has spent time on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign trail is familiar with the phrase "Except Lieberman." When grassroots Democrats gather to talk about the crowd of candidates for the party's nomination, there is plenty of disagreement about the merits of the various contenders, but the activists invariably come around to saying, "Of course, I'd support anyone against Bush." Then, as an afterthought, they add, "Except Lieberman."
In reality, most Democrats who attach the "Except Lieberman" qualifier are so angry with Bush that they probably would vote for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman if he won the party's nod. But not all. And that reality should be a serious concern for leaders of a party that cannot afford to suffer slippage from its base in 2004.
While Lieberman likes to claim that his center-right politics make him the surest Democratic prospect for 2004, the reality is that he is the prominent Democratic contender who would have the hardest time uniting the party. Among the leading contenders, none inspires such antipathy as Lieberman. The latest Iowa Poll of likely participants in that state's first-in-the-nation caucuses found that, in the "least-liked candidate" category, only the Rev. Al Sharpton ranked higher than Lieberman.
While high name recognition from his 2000 vice-presidential bid gave the Connecticut senator a solid position in early polls of Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, Lieberman has lost support as Democrats have focused on the 2004 contest. The Iowa Poll, released Sunday, showed him running a weak fourth place behind the frontrunner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. The latest Franklin Pierce College poll from New Hampshire has Lieberman falling to fourth place there as well, with only six percent support. In the Field Poll of likely voters in California's March 2 primary, Lieberman dropped from first place in April to third place in July, falling behind Dean and Kerry.
Considering the souring sentiments of the party faithful with regard to his candidacy, there was a measure of pathos in Lieberman's attempt on Monday to identify himself as the candidate "rooted in the tradition of the Democratic party at its best." Speaking in Washington at the National Press Club, Lieberman declared himself to be in "a fight for the future of the Democratic party" with more progressive candidates who, if polls and anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail serves as any indication, are dramatically more popular with Democrats than Lieberman. Desperate to renew a candidacy battered by structural difficulties -- including the recent resignation of his Iowa campaign chief -- Lieberman sought to drag the other candidates down with thinly-veiled shots at Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich and other contenders who have occupied turf to the left of the shared ground from which Bush and Lieberman support military adventurism, corporate-sponsored free trade policies and restrictions on civil liberties.
"I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the direction he has taken this nation. But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in the outdated extremes of our own," Lieberman declared. "That path will not solve the challenges of our time, and could send us back to the political wilderness for years to come."
Lieberman is, of course, wrong. Democrats were consigned to the political wilderness in 2002, when party leaders chose to follow his counsel and cosy up to the Bush Administration on issues such as war and peace, the USA Patriot Act and corporate welfare bailouts for the airline industry. While Republican turnout went up in 2002, Democratic turnout slackened. A quick analysis of the results led most Democrats -- from presidential prospects to grassroots activists -- to recognize that any further fuzzing of the margins between the parties in 2004 would be disastrous. So it comes as no surprise that the greatest applause line on the campaign trail has been Dean's pledge to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party."
While all the other candidates are trying to pick up on Dean's call to arms -- with varying degrees of success -- Lieberman continues to preach a Republican-lite line that is so out of touch with political realities on the ground in America that it inspires laughter at Democratic gatherings. Lieberman thinks he is in a fight for the future of the Democratic party, but the truth is that he has already lost that fight. As Donna Brazile, the manager of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign, explained to the Washington Post in May, "The bottom line is, he is defined as a conservative US senator."
While Lieberman disputes that definition, his continued defense of the war with Iraq and his refusal to back off his support for Wall Street's free-trade agenda has pegged him in the minds of many Democrats as a candidate who is way out of step with a party that questions the war and complains about the loss of more than two million manufacturing jobs in recent years.
For many Democrats who will play a pivotal role in the early caucuses and primaries, it is not Dean or Kerry or Kucinich who represent what Lieberman describes as "the discredited example of our party at its worst." It is Lieberman, himself.
Harry Truman warned that, when given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat imitating a Republican, voters would not hesitate to vote for the real thing. And, with his support for the Bush Administration's agenda on foreign policy and trade -- fundamental issues not just for Democratic activists but for millions of disenchanted citizens who need to be drawn to the polls if the Democratic nominee is to prevail in November, 2004 -- Lieberman has positioned himself as the pale imitation of Bush that grassroots Democrats fear will depress turnout.
Lieberman's National Press Club speech signaled his intention to echo the conservative Democratic Leadership Council's theme that nominating a Democrat who shares the values of the party faithful would be dangerous. Like the DLC, he is trying to paint more liberal candidates as 2004 versions of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. But the comparison that comes to mind when Lieberman bashes candidates who are popular with the party's base voters is not to the 1972 race, but rather to the 1980 contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
That year, moderate Republicans were horrified by the prospect that the party cadres were preparing to nominate former California Governor Ronald Reagan for president. Reagan's foes warned that if the conservative icon became the nominee, the November election results would be as disastrous as the 1964 campaign where standard-bearing conservative Barry Goldwater got trounced.
The pundits repeated the Goldwater-Reagan comparison constantly; even after Reagan's campaign took off, Time magazine declared that, "His biggest problem may be that the very hard-line conservative positions that appeal to the enthusiasts who vote in G.O.P. primaries are exactly those that might not attract the much larger body of people who vote in November." There was even talk that former President Gerald Ford might have to be drafted into the primary competition in order to stop Reagan. But the party faithful could not be dissuaded. They followed their principles and their hearts and went with Reagan. The November election results proved them right. Even if Americans did not agree with Reagan's ideology, they preferred his confident style to the more nuanced and centrist offerings of Jimmy Carter and John Anderson.
Democrats who counsel compromise going into the 2004 contest are likely to find themselves disregarded in much the same way that Republican compromisers were in 1980. And rightly so. If the party chooses a candidate who is confident enough to aggressively challenge George W. Bush, Democrats might well find that steering a bold course is far more appealing to the great mass of American voters that the circumnavigations proposed by Joe Lieberman.
In an unprecedented rebuff to the agenda of big media, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved by a 400-21 vote an appropriations bill that includes languarge blocking implementation of a Federal Communications Commission rule change designed to allow a single corporation to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American viewers. That FCC rule change, for which Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and other media giants had mounted a fierce lobbying campaign, also faces broad opposition in the Senate. With the House echoing that opposition, Congress is currently positioned to block implementation of a rule change that is near and dear to the hearts--and bottom lines--of America's media giants.
While the Bush White House continues to promote the big-media agenda as part of an overall strategy of reworking regulations to favor large corporate campaign givers -- raising the prospect that the president might veto Congressional moves to prevent the FCC from implementing this rule change -- veteran Capitol Hill observers say public opposition to the FCC rule changes has grown so powerful that even the president could change his tune. "If the White House is threatening a veto on this, they offer that at their own peril," explained Andy Davis, an aide to US Sen. Ernest Hollings, the powerful South Carolina Democrat who is a key player behind the Senate effort to reverse the FCC's June 2 decision to raise the television ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. "This is an issue that has enormously broad bipartisan support. People are very passionate about this issue."
Republican leaders in the House felt that passion this week, as many members of their own caucus signaled that they would support reversal of the FCC's decision to raise the ownership cap. That caused the leadership to back off efforts to strip the appropriations bill language that prevents the FCC from implementing the change.
But the real measure of the extent to which the dynamic in Congress is shifting came in one of the first serious floor fights in recent years on a media ownership issue.
The ownership cap is just one of a number of rule changes approved by the FCC and it is not the worst of them. The most troubling rewrite of the rules by the commission is a measure that allows a single company to own television and radio stations, the local daily newspaper and the cable system in the same city. The FCC's move to lift limits on "cross-ownership" poses a genuine threat to competition, diversity and local programming and it is opposed by religious, labor, civil rights and community groups, as well as conservatives such as New York Times columnist William Safire.
In the Senate, there is bipartisan support for reversing the FCC's cross-ownership rule change. But in the House, Republican and Democratic leaders blocked efforts to amend the appropriations bill to include language that would prevent the FCC from implementing this industry-backed rule shift. That led to a remarkable revolt on the House floor Tuesday, and provoked the most engaged debate on media and democracy issues that the Congress has seen in modern times.
Representatives Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, a leading figure in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and David Price, D-North Carolina, a member of the Appropriations Committee, introduced a resolution to roll back the cross-ownership rule change. Opposed not just by top Republicans but two of the most powerful Democrats in the House, Michigan's John Dingell and Wisconsin's David Obey, the assault on the high-priority agenda item for big-media lobbies was not expected to win a significant number of votes. A decision by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to schedule an earlier than expected vote on the amendment dimmed its prospects further.
But, on Tuesday, a strong push from the activist networks of MoveOn.org, Consumers Union, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Free Press and labor groups, as well as deft strategic moves by Hinchey, Price and Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pulled together an unexpected bipartisan coalition that suggests it may yet be possible to reverse the cross-ownership rule. With phones in House offices ringing off their hooks -- many members estimated that they received as many as 100 calls an hour urging support for the Hinchey amendment -- a bipartisan cross-section of members trooped to the floor to condemn media monopoly.
Oregon's Democrat Peter DeFazio described the FCC's loosening of media ownership controls as "perhaps the most radical usurpation of the public interest in the history of regulation," while Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey called the commission's June 2 votes "the worst decision ever made by the Federal Communications Commission." Markey said that the cross-ownership change would create a situation where, "The kind of power that one company is going to have in your hometown is going to make Citizen Kane look like an underachiever."
Warning that loosening existing limits on cross-ownership would limit discourse and undermine democracy, Washington Democrat Jay Inslee declared that, "A monopoly ideas is ultimately more destructive to American democracy than a monopoly of money." California Democrat Barbara Lee echoed his frustration and added a note of concern about how further monopolization of media ownership would shut out minority voices. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, described the rule change as "totally against the interests of democracy," while Inslee urged Congress to "give American what they want, which is less consolidation of the media."
Faced with powerful arguments for the Hinchey-Price amendment, Obey, who wrote the spending bill provision rolling back the ownership cap to 35 percent, said he agreed with "every word" of the arguments from foes of the cross-ownership rule change, But he expressed his fear that adding the Hinchey-Price amendment to the appropriations bill would guarantee a Bush veto that Congress probably could not override. "We have a tactical disagreement," said Obey, who indicated support for alternative moves to block the cross-ownership rule. But, noting the public pressure on the issue, other members argued that Obey had made a tactical error by not throwing his support behind the Hinchey-Price amendment.
Sanders told the House that public indignation over media consolidation has grown so strong that even the Bush administration would feel the pressure. Members of the FCC and Congress have received an estimated 2.3 million communications from Americans saying they oppose loosening of controls on media ownership. And Inslee said that if a bill containing the roll back of the cross-ownership rule change got to the president's desk, White House phone and email systems would "melt down" with calls from Americans supporting the measure.
In the end, pressure from DeLay, Dingell and Obey, as well as big-media lobbyists, was sufficient to block the Hinchey-Price amendment. But the vote was a far closer than expected 254-174 -- a margin Senate foes of the FCC rule changes say will strengthen their hand in negotiations with the House. Significantly, the 139 Democrats who backed the Hinchey-Price amendment were joined by 34 Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin. That means that, on the committee charged with examining anti-trust and monopoly issues, the ranking Republican and the ranking Democrat, Michigan's John Conyers, have expressed their opposition to cross-ownership.
After years in which media companies have rolled their agenda over Congress with few objections, Inslee said a "tsunami" of public pressure was starting to change the course of Congress. He was right. With the House endorsing efforts to roll back the FCC's rule change regarding television ownership caps, and with Obey and other members who voted against the Hinchey-Price amendment saying they are ready to move in other directions to roll back the cross-ownership rule change, the Congressional fight against not just the FCC but the broader crisis of media consolidation has only just begun.