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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Refusing to Write the Blank Check

In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson sought a major supplemental appropriation to fund the rapidly expanding US presence in Vietnam, ten members of Congress said "no." The group, all Democrats, included three US Senators--Oregon's Wayne Morse, Alaska's Ernest Gruening and Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson--and seven members of the House: Californians Phil Burton, George Brown and Don Edwards, New Yorkers Bill Ryan and John Dow, Oregon's Edith Green, and a newly-elected representative from Detroit, Michigan, named John Conyers.

Of the ten, only Conyers remains in the Congress. And, on Friday, he again cast his vote against a presidential demand for the appropriation of money to fund a distant war that critics have begun to refer to as a "quagmire." A fierce critic of the Bush Administration's domestic and international policies -- Conyers likes to say, "We need a regime change in the United States" --the Congressman voted against the Bush Administration's request for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation, most of which will be used to fund the continued occupation of Iraq. "(The Administration is) adding $87 billion on top of the $67 billion already spent, and there is no end in sight," Conyers said, echoing his criticism of appropriations for Vietnam

When he voted against the Iraq appropriation, however, Conyers had a lot more company.

One hundred and thirty-seven members of the Congress -- 125 in the House and 12 in the Senate -- resisted the Administration's demand for the $87 billion. While the vote against the appropriation was insufficient to stop the war, it served as a signal that opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is more politically potent than analysts with short memories of past fights over military funding fights would have Americans believe.

Among the dozen senators who opposed the $87 billion appropriation were the chamber's two senior members, Democrats Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, and Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, both of whom supported that 1965 Vietnam appropriation. Byrd, whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war made him something of a hero to young activists, left no doubt about his feelings during Friday's debate. Comparing the Administration's promotion of the war in Iraq with Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goring's propaganda before and during World War II, Byrd declared, "The emperor has no clothes. This entire adventure in Iraq has been based on propaganda and manipulation. Eight-seven billion dollars is too much to pay for the continuation of a war based on falsehoods."

Kennedy and Byrd were joined by nine Democrats, California's Barbara Boxer, North Carolina's John Edwards, Florida's Bob Graham, Iowa's Tom Harkin, South Carolina's Ernest Hollings, Massachusetts' John Kerry, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Maryland's Paul Sarbanes. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords joined them in voting "no." Notably, Harkin, Edwards and Kerry voted for the October, 2002, resolution that Bush used as an authorization to invade Iraq.

Edwards and Kerry, both Democratic presidential candidates, have taken hard hits on the campaign trail for their support of last year's resolution. On Thursday, they sided with Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich in opposing the $87 billion spending scheme. Kucinich, the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted against the October, 2002, resolution, again helped to organize House opposition to the war.

"We must end the occupation," Kucinich, a representative from Ohio, said of the $87 billion request. "Seventy-seven percent of these funds would go for an occupation that is unjust and counterproductive. The Iraq occupation destabilizes an already turbulent region, and we should not risk the death of a single additional American soldier to perpetuate it."

In the House, Kucinich was one of 118 Democrats, six Republicans and an independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, who opposed the appropriation. The majority of House Democrats opposed the $87 billion appropriation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, joined the opposition, as did Wisconsin's David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, New York's Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Michigan's John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Conyers is also the ranking member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which provided much of the opposition to the appropriation. "We are leading this Congress and the Democratic Caucus in saying 'no' to the president," said California Democrat Maxine Waters, a key player in both the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus.

California Democrat Diane Watson, a former diplomat, summed up the sentiments of members of the Black and Progressive caucuses, when she announced, "We cannot afford to give this president another blank check to spend on his Iraq adventure when so many people are suffering through a recession here at home and when our nation's critical infrastructure needs are being neglected. My vote against the Iraq supplemental is a vote for the American people and our troops, who will continue to bear the burden of the president's failed policy."

Among the Democrats voting with Bush were former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, and Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, both Democratic presidential candidates who have been steady supporters of the war. While Gephardt and Lieberman could not bring themselves to disagree with Bush's request, six House Republicans did. Among them were moderates such as Wisconsin's Tom Petri, conservatives such as Tennessee's John Duncan Jr. and Idaho's C.L. "Butch" Otter, and consistent war critic Ron Paul of Texas.

Dick's Special Interest in $87 Billion

Vice President Dick Cheney has a special interest in this week's Congressional debate on the Bush administration's request for $87 billion to maintain the occupation of Iraq and other military adventures abroad. If approved by the House and Senate in its current form, the proposal would allocate roughly $20 billion to reconstruct Iraq, with most of the rest of the money going to cover the costs of the occupation.

Approval of the $87 billion package would be good news for Cheney, who it is now evident, retains ties to his former employer, the energy and construction conglomerate Halliburton. Halliburton is, of course, a prime benecificary of military and reconstruction expenditures in Iraq.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has already awarded Halliburton's engineering and construction arm, Kellogg, Brown & Root, a no-bid contract to restore Iraq's oil industry. Halliburton parlayed an initial $37.5 million contract to put out oil-field fires into a range of responsibilities that has already run up roughly $1 billion in costs. "War is hell, but it has turned into financial heaven for Halliburton," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, who with Representative Henry Waxman, D-California, has led the charge to expose details of Halliburton's dealings in Iraq. "This sweetheart, no-bid contract given to Halliburton spikes up by hundreds of millions of dollars each week. It's outrageous."

The outrageousness does not stop there. The value of a contract between the Pentagon and Halliburton to manage military bases could end up costing as much as $2 billion.

Thus, if Congress approves the $87 billion spending bill, Halliburton will be well positioned to collect maximum payments on its existing contracts and to go for more gold as the Pentagon opens the dollar spigots. It is important to remember that Halliburton would not merely benefit from an increase in funding for reconstruction of Iraq's oil industry. Halliburton has also integrated itself into the military side of the operation. As much of one-third of the current $3.9 billion-a-month cost of maintaining US troops in Iraq is paid to private contractors such as Halliburton, according to independent analysts.

A Washington Post report in August revealed that, "Services performed by Halliburton, through its Brown and Root subsidiary, include building and managing military bases, logistical support for the 1,200 intelligence officers hunting Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, delivering mail and producing millions of hot meals. Often dressed in Army fatigues with civilian patches on their shoulders, Halliburton employees and contract personnel have become an integral part of Army life in Iraq."

So it should come as no surprise that, if Congress approves another $87 billion to maintain the occupation of Iraq and to pay for reconstruction initiatives, analysts expect the value of Halliburton stock to increase. And that's where the Congressional vote gets interesting for Cheney. As the former CEO of Halliburton, which saw its stock value sink during the energy crisis and after revelations about its long history of ties to the scandal-plagued Enron Corp., he could benefit from an uptick in Halliburton's fortunes.

Despite Cheney's claim during a September "Meet the Press" appearance that he had "severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest" in Halliburton, Lautenberg argues that Cheney retains significant financial ties to the company. A successful businessman and investor before his election to the Senate, Lautenberg notes that Cheney, who received a $34 million package when he left Halliburton to become Vice President, continues to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in deferred salary and retains $433,333 in unexercised stock options.

According to an analysis distributed by Lautenberg, if Cheney were to exercise his options, the Vice President could:

* Buy 100,000 shares of Halliburton stock at $54.50 before the end of 2007. That adds up to $5,420,000.

* Buy 33,333 shares of Halliburton stock at $28.13 by the end of 2008. That adds up to $937,657.29.

* Buy 100,000 shares of Halliburton stock at $39.50 by the end of 2009. That adds up to $3,950,000.

Cheney says that he would donate profits from the sale of these stock options to charity, and he says he will not take tax deductions for such donations. But he would still be able to enjoy the prestige and honor of delivering substantial resources to a favored charity -- perhaps the Richard Cheney Vice Presidential Library -- and he could also provide Halliburton with a sizable tax deduction.

Unfortunately for Cheney and his former firm, Halliburton shares have been selling for under $25. Thus, for Cheney to be able to cash out, Halliburton stock prices must move upward -- as they might well do once the Congress approves the $87 billion.

Does this all add up to a conflict of interest? Cheney's office says "the answer to that is, 'no.'" But that's because they interpret the Vice President's retention of unexercised stock options as something other than a tie to Halliburton. Lautenberg notes that, in addition to sitting on the stock options, the Vice President received $205,298 in deferred salary paid by Halliburton in 2001 and $162,392 in deferred salary paid by Halliburton in 2002, and he notes that Cheney is apparently scheduled to collect similar payments in 2003, 2004 and 2005. "The Vice President says he does not have any financial ties to Halliburton, but his own financial disclosure filings suggest something else," says Lautenberg. "In 2001 and 2002, Vice President Cheney was paid almost as much in salary from Halliburton as he made as Vice President."

Lautenberg is not alone in viewing the deferred salary payments and unexercised stock options as a lingering linkage between Cheney and Halliburton. A new Congressional Research Service report describes deferred salary and stock options as "among those benefits described by the Office of Government Ethics as 'retained ties' or 'linkages' to one's former employer."

So, while the Vice President and his aides spin their way around the question of whether conflicts exist, Lautenberg says, "I ask the Vice President to stop dodging the issue with legalese."

Assuming the Vice President does not take his advice, Lautenberg and other Senate Democrats are proposing an amendment to the $87 billion spending bill that would force Cheney to finally cut what the Congress Research Service describes as "retained ties" and "linkages" to Halliburton. The amendment would prevent companies with financial ties to Bush, Cheney and their Cabinet secretaries from obtaining Pentagon contracts in Iraq. And it would require members of the Bush Administration who retain stock options to exercise them in 90 days or forfeit the benefits.

Cheney aides claim all the talk about the Vice President's ties to Halliburton are a "a political cheap shot."

But as the details of Halliburton's sweetheart contract, its overcharging of the U.S. government and the ever expanding value of its contracts with the Pentagon are revealed, what Cheney aides call a "cheap shot" is starting to look like a smoking gun.

For the latest on US Senator Frank Lautenberg's examination of Cheney's lingering ties to Halliburton, click here

For the latest on US Representative Henry Waxman's examination of Halliburton's contracts with the Pentagon, click here.

Against Blind Imperial Arrogance

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."

Blair Takes a Hit--Bush Next?

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.

First Cancún, Then Washington

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.

Johnny Cash's Redemption Song

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.

Court Blocks FCC Media Rules

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.

Candidates Look for the Union Label

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.

FCC is Feeling the Heat

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.

Bogus Blair, Bogus Bush

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.

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