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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Kerry on the Media

John Kerry and George W. Bush, the Democrat and Republican who will compete this November for the presidency, both attended similar New England preparatory schools, both graduated from Yale, and both received advanced degrees from prestigious east coast colleges. But, somewhere along the way, they developed dramatically different reading habits.

Where Bush says he does not read newspapers, Kerry says he cannot get enough of them. And that distinction, Kerry suggested when he sat down with this reporter for a rare extended interview on media issues this week, sums up a radically different vision of how a president should gather and process information they must use to make fundamental decisions about the direction of the nation and the world.

"I read four or five papers a day if I can," said Kerry, when asked about his newspaper reading habits. "It depends obviously on where I am and what I'm doing. I always pick up a local paper in the hotel I'm staying at, or two depending on what the city is. And I try to get the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, papers like that. I try to read as much as I can."

Those patterns are similar to most former presidents. Dwight Eisenhower read nine papers daily, Ronald Reagan was such an avid consumer of newspapers that his ex-wife Jane Wyman complained about his print media obsessions, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were known to go through stacks of papers each day. But Kerry's penchant for the papers clearly distinguishes him from the current President Bush.

When asked last fall by Fox News anchor Brit Hume how he gets his news, Bush said he asks an aide, "What's in the newspapers worth worrying about?" The president added that, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of (get) a flavor of what's moving. I rarely the stories..."

Instead of gathering information himself, Bush said he prefers to "get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves" and "people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Kerry shook his head in disagreement as Bush's comments were recounted to him.

"I can't imagine being president and not reading as much as I can about what people are saying," explained Kerry. "I don't want (information) varnished by staff. I don't want it filtered by staff. I want it the way it is. And I think you get a much better sense of what's going in the country (when you gather information yourself). I think one of the reasons we have some problems today is that we have an administration that's out of touch with the problems of average people. They don't know how people are struggling. They don't know what's happening with health care, employment. They don't know, or they don't care, that's their choice."

As a constant consumer of news, Kerry says he spends a good deal of time thinking about the role of media in a democratic society. And he gets frustrated when television networks fail to live up to the responsibility that should go with a license to use the people's airwaves.

When it was mentioned that many Americans had expressed disappointment with the decision of the nation's broadcast television networks to air only three hours of Democratic convention coverage, Kerry said, "I share the disappointment. We're a democracy, and the strength of our democracy is in the ability of citizens to be informed. If the major media are unwilling to inform -- and simply because there is not a clash or a conflict or something doesn't mean (a convention) is not informative -- I personally think it's a derogation of their responsibility (that goes with using) the broadcast airwaves."

In particular, Kerry said he was upset that the nation's commercial broadcast networks -- including ABC, CBS and NBC -- decided not to air any coverage on the second night of the convention in Boston. That was the night when Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama delivered a much-praised keynote address, Ron Reagan broke ranks with the Republican Party to criticize President Bush's limits on stem-cell research, and Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke about her husband.

"My wife gave a wonderful speech, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, it was a brilliant night," said Kerry. "I think it's very disappointing that the American people, at least the people who watch the networks, missed it. I talked to several of the anchors beforehand but, you know, that's the way they decided. Obviously, I disagreed."

Asked if he thought the decision of the networks to downplay the coverage of the convention sent a signal that told Americans not to take what happened in Boston seriously, Kerry said, "I don't know if its that message or not. I think most Americans are smart enough to understand (that it does matter)."

But Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was seated next to her husband, interrupted him and said, "That is the message, I think. I agree that it hurts."

Concerns about consolidated media, particularly consolidated media that does not see itself as having a responsibility to cover politics seriously and to question those in positions of authority, have been highlighted in recent documentaries such as Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed," a critique of the conservative bias of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News programs, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11." Kerry has not yet seen "Fahrenheit 9-11," but he described its success as "remarkable." And he made it clear that he shares the view of those who believe that media consolidation is a significant issue in contemporary America.

If Kerry is elected president, he will be in a position to influence the media landscape. Encouraged by President Bush and lobbyists for the major networks, a Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission sought last year to ease limits on media consolidation at the local and national levels. Kerry, who notes that he voted in the Senate to maintain the controls against consolidation, says he would set a different course by appointing FCC commissioners who are more sympathetic to diversity of ownership, competition and local control. Several days after he sat down for the interview that is recounted here, Kerry amplified the point when he promised a gathering of minority journalists that, "I will appoint people to the FCC, and I will pursue a policy, that tries to have as diverse and broad an ownership as possible."

Distinguishing himself from President Bush, Kerry says, "I'm against the ongoing push for media consolidation. It's contrary to the stronger interests of the country." Diversity of media ownership and content, the candidate explains, "is critical to who we are as a free people. It's critical to our democracy."

Combative Kerry

At a convention where the "No Bush Bashing" memo went out early and remained in circulation through three nights of frequently tepid speechifying, John Kerry ended things with an appropriately aggressive pummeling of the president.

Kerry did not engage in the empty bipartisanship that has too frequently been the dodge of Democratic politicians in the post-September 11th era. He delivered a speech that was as tough and partisan as it needed to be. And he did everything in his power to suggest that his would be a dramatically different administration from that of the White House's current occupant.

At times, Kerry was painfully blunt about the failings of the current and former Presidents Bush, and their corruptions of the public trust. "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation -- not the Saudi royal family," he said, in pointed reference to the Bush family's dark and continual compromises of American security and values with the dictators of the Middle East.

In a litany of sincere complaint, Kerry contrasted his own candidacy's promise with the broken promises of the Bush presidency. Addressing the administration's trouble with truth, he turned a line from Bush's 2000 campaign on the president, declaring that, "I will restore trust and credibility to the White House."

Then he explained exactly what he meant:

"I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war," Kerry shouted. "I will have a Vice President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an Attorney General who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States."

Kerry was, as always, better at condemning Bush's management of the occupation of Iraq than he was at presenting a strategy for exiting the quagmire. But the candidate did have his Michael Moore moment, when he recalled the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, saying, "I am proud that after September 11th all our people rallied to President Bush's call for unity to meet the danger. There were no Democrats. There were no Republicans. There were only Americans. How we wish it had stayed that way.

"Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because the issues just aren't all that simple. Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn't make it so.

"As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system -- so policy is guided by facts, and fact are never distorted by politics. And as president, I will bring this nation's time-honored tradition; the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to."

There is a running joke that says Kerry's campaign might well succeed with a two-word slogan: "Not Bush." And much of the candidate's acceptance speech seemed to adopt that theme.

Of course, the newly-minted Democratic nominee's address offered a good deal more than Bush bashing. Kerry had his elegant moments, especially toward the close of the speech, when he announced that, "It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is here. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come."

But even as he flashed his poetic license, Kerry distinguished himself with Bush: "For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans," he declared. "Values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."

It was on the subject of family values -- or, at least, on the president's warped proposals for protecting them -- that Kerry subtlety referenced a subject that was rarely discussed from the podium of the convention: the president's drive to amend the Constitution to bar same-sex marriages.

"I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush: In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents. Let's built unity in the American family, not angry division. Let's honor the nation's diversity; let's respect one another; and let's never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States."

That was a subtle jab, to be sure -- less Howard Dean than Jimmy Carter. But it was a jab all the same. And, like the other hits Kerry landed on Bush last night, it signaled that the nominee has decided to wage the combative campaign that Dean's run for the nomination taught the party could be run and that Carter's Monday night speech to the convention effectively called upon the party to wage.

The Convention's Agitator-in-Chief

BOSTON--Michael Moore was set to leave this Democratic National Convention city today on his way to Los Angeles, where the maker of the hit film "Fahrenheit 9-11" will appear on "The Tonight Show."

That's a good thing for John Kerry because, even in the town that is preparing to nominate the Massachusetts senator for president this evening, the film maker's star might well have eclipsed the candidate's.

There is not much doubt that Michael Moore was one of the hottest, perhaps the hottest, commodity in Boston during the first several days of the convention. Everywhere he went, the man who may now be the best-known film maker in the nation was mobbed -- by crowds, and by reporters.

When Moore walked the floor of the convention hall on Monday morning, veteran journalists rushed past U.S. senators and party leaders to get within earshot of the man in the black t-shirt. The same was true over the next several days, as the Michigan native who made Bush bashing – or is it truth telling? -- an art form appeared at events sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, the Campaign for America' Future, Veterans for Peace and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the public employee union that sponsored a private screening of Moore' documentary for its members on Tuesday.

Every group that had the film maker on its bill suddenly found that their gathering was, at least for the time that Moore was present, the hottest ticket in a town of hot tickets.

When Moore returned to the convention hall Wednesday night, he was mobbed, drawing crowds that included not just reporters and delegates but members of the U.S. House and Senate.

At times, Moore marveled at the response. "I stood on the Oscar Stage and I was booed five days after the war began," he said, recalling the night in March, 2003, when he condemned the war in Iraq while accepting an Oscar for his documentary, "Bowling for Columbine." "That was when 70 percent of America supported the war. Even Democrats were for the war. I guess America came around."

At every appearance and in every interview during the convention, Moore delivered a steady stream of hard hits on the usual targets: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, middle-of-the-road Democrats, multinational corporations and mainstream media.

Turning the slogan of the Fox News Channel on itself, Moore said, "There has been no fairness and no balance from any of the news networks on this war." On the convention floor Monday, Moore confronted a CNN reporter. Later, he ran into Bill O'Reilly, the Fox commentator who has frequently questioned the patriotism of the Academy Award-winning documentary maker.

Moore agreed to appear Tuesday night on "The O'Reilly Factor. When O'Reilly went after Moore for opposing the war in Iraq, the film maker asked whether the host was willing to say, "I, Bill O'Reilly, would sacrifice my child to secure Fallujah." O'Reilly refused.

Moore's fight with the media is likely to heat up this fall. "In the coming months," he promised this week, "I'm going to present some things to show the American people how the news was being manipulated -- how the news media served as cheerleaders for this war."

"I've already put a movie out that's outed our media, that shows what a miserable job they did before the war," he said, referring to "Fahrenheit 9/11. "I intend to bring out some material that will provide more evidence of the manipulation."

Moore also hopes to put out a book of letters he has received from members of the military who share his anger with the Bush administration's approach to the war. "People are going to ask: Why didn't we hear from them? How did the embedded reporters miss this story? Where was our mainstream media?"

Moore's got another project coming up, as well. This fall, he'll be visiting battleground states where the race between Kerry and Bush is considered close. "I'll be all over the battleground states from now until the election," says Moore. "I've got a few more things I want to say about George Bush."

Democrats from the contested states say they will welcome Moore with open arms. "He's a troublemaker and this party needs more of those," says Michael Lowery, a Howard Dean delegate from Wisconsin. "Michael Moore challenges this party. We need that kind of gadfly. He keeps us honest."

Be that the case, there were no plans to get Moore together with the other man of the hour: John Kerry.

"If they would give me 15 minutes with him, I'd love to talk to him," Moore said. "I'd tell him how to win this election."

And what should Democrats do to win?

"Kerry's job is to get the base out," explained Moore, who has a long history of involvement with electoral politics, going back at least to when he was elected to the Flint, Mich., school board when he was 18. "This election is not about trying to convince the small percentage of the American people in the center to come over to the Democratic side. It's about energizing the base."

Moore mentioned a predominantly African-American precinct in Cleveland that was overwhelmingly Democratic, but where only 13 percent of the eligible voters turned out for the last election. "That's where Kerry should be working," said Moore. "He should be working to get the people out in that Cleveland neighborhood.

He's got some other political advice. For instance, he says he hopes that progressive Democrats campaign at screenings of his movie. Former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., did just that, as part of a comeback campaign that last week secured her the Democratic primary nomination in an Atlanta-area district.

"I'm glad Cynthia McKinney's coming back to Congress, and I'm glad if my movie helped make that happen," declared Moore.

McKinney hailed ""Fahrenheit 9-11," as have most Democrats. But not every political figure is of the same opinion.

Even as he was at the convention Wednesday night, "Fahrenheit 9-11" was debuting in a new town: Crawford, Tex., where President Bush's ranch in located. "We're setting up a big screen," Moore explained. "I hope Mr. Bush comes to see it. He's on vacation in Crawford, you know, so he might want to take in a movie."

Then again, he might not.

Networks Missed a Historic Speech

BOSTON -- When Barack Obama was delivering the finest keynote address heard at a Democratic National Convention since Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech in San Francisco, the nation's broadcast television networks were airing their usual mix of police dramas, a program about a Disney cruise and a show that asked the question: "Who says pageant girls don't eat?'

ABC, NBC and CBS chose not to air any of Tuesday night's convention proceedings. For the first time since the development of broadcast television, Americans could not tune into one of their local commercial television stations and watch nation's oldest political party reinventing itself for the newest campaign.

To be sure, the cable networks offered a reasonable mix of live convention coverage -- ranging from the incessant play-by-play chatter of CNN to the potshots from Fox and the uninterrupted feed of CSpan -- but the broadcast networks chose not to be carry the convention. As such, they sent a powerful signal regarding the extent to which they take seriously their responsibility to provide citizens with the information that is the lifeblood of democracy.

It is true that much of what is said from the convention podium these days adds up to little more than a partisan informercial. But there are still meaningful moments, and Obama's address was one of them. In fact, the Illinois state senator's speech was an exceptionally significant expression of the ever-evolving story of American citizenship and political engagement. Obama's often poetic message -- with its "E pluribus unum. Out of many one" theme -- was the talk of the convention.

It was not, however, the talk of the nation because, of course, the networks chose not give it the same time and attention they devoted to that program about the eating habits of their "pageant girls."

The failure to broadcast the speech by a man many believe could be the country's first African-American president struck even some media veterans as troubling. On ABC's "The View," co-host Meredith Vieira spoke of how, "After (Obama) got done speaking, I had chills" and complained about the decision of the networks to neglect the keynote address. "He is a man that America needed to see," she said.

By any measure, Vieira is right.

But don't expect broadcast television to get the message. The networks have replaced the civil and democratic values that once a played a role in decisions about what to cover with commercial and entertainment values that dictate a denial of seriousness or perspective when it comes to political stories.

That's one of the reasons why so many Americans objected last year to Federal Communications Commission proposals that would have lifted the cap on the number of local TV stations a corporation could own -- and the amount of the viewing audience network-owned stations could reach.

Despite the intensity of the FCC rule fight, the campaign for media reform in America is only beginning to have a serious impact on the political process. But it is growing. And, while the neglect by the networks of the Obama speech is troubling sign, there is an encouraging sign coming out of this convention.

On Tuesday night, delegates approved a platform that recognizes the burgeoning media reform movement in the United States. The language that was added to the platform, under pressure from unions such as the Communication Workers of America that have become increasing active in the fight for media reform, was not radical. But it was on message. "Because our democracy thrives on public access to diverse sources of information from multiple sources, we support measures to ensure diversity, competition, and localism in media ownership," argues the new platform language.

There's a lot more that Democrats should stand for with regard to media reform. And, hopefully, anger over the decision of the networks to skip coverage of Tuesday night's proceedings will cause party activists to recognize that complaining about the conservative bias of Fox is not enough. When the major networks choose pageant girls over political history, they themselves are making the case that democratic renewal cannot be achieved without radically altering the style and structure of our media system.

No Longer Pushing the Death Penalty

BOSTON -- The Democratic party platform that will be adopted this week includes one particularly significant change from the platforms adopted by the party conventions of 1992, 1996 and 2000. During the platform-writing process, the drafting committee quietly removed the section of the document that endorsed capital punishment. Thus, for the first time since the 1980s, Democrats will not be campaigning on a pro-death penalty program.

Why the change?

Simply put, on the question of execution, John Kerry is a very different Democrat from Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Clinton and Gore, while surely aware that capital punishment is an ineffective and racially and economically biased vehicle for fighting crime, were willing to embrace it as a political tool. When he was running for the presidency in 1992, then Governor Clinton even rushed back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally-retarded inmate.

With Clinton and Gore steering the party's policies, Democratic platforms explicitly and frequently endorsed capital punishment.

But Clinton and Gore are no longer at the helm. And, as of tonight, the party will no longer be on record as supporting the death penalty. Asked about the removal of the pro-capital punishment language, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chair of the committee that drafted the document, explained that, "It's a reflection of John Kerry."

Kerry, who is often accused by his Republican critics of flip-flopping, is made of firmer stuff than most politicians when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. He opposes executions in virtually all cases -- making an exception only after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when he said he would consider supporting capital punishment, in limited cases, for foreign terrorists.

On the domestic front, Kerry has earned high marks from death penalty critics. Last fall, when the Students Against the Death Penalty project of the American Civil Liberties Union rated the nine candidates who were then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination on a variety of death penalty-related issues, Kerry and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich were the only two who received perfect scores.

Kerry opposes the execution of juveniles, supports greater access to DNA testing for death row inmates and argues that studies "reveal serious questions, racial bias, and deep disparities in the way the death penalty is applied." Kerry was a cosponsor of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001 and of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2003.

"I know something about killing," Kerry says, referencing his service in Vietnam as a swift-boat commander. "I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have."

Polls show a majority of Americans support the death penalty in at least some instances. But since the late 1980s, enthusiasm for capital punishment has been slipping. Many Americans, including some political leaders such as former Illinois Governor George Ryan, have come to question the morality of state-sponsored executions, as the use of DNA analysis has led to the exoneration of dozens of death-row inmates.

Still, the death penalty remains a divisive issue. Not since 1988 has either major party nominated a critic of capital punishment for the presidency. The 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was attacked by that year's Republican nominee, George Herbert Walker Bush, for opposing the death penalty. Whether Kerry will face similar attacks from Bush's son, an enthusiastic backer and frequent practitioner of state-sponsored executions during his days as governor of Texas, remains to be seen. But the volatility of the issue may explain why Democrats have been so quiet about the shift in platform language.

It is notable, however, that, in addition to Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, eleven other states bar executions. Among them are a number of the battleground states that could decide the November election, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and West Virginia.

Tammy Baldwin's Turn

BOSTON -- When Tammy Baldwin takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday night, with a prime-time speaking slot on a star-studded bill that includes two former presidents, a former vice president and a former first lady, she will pause to recall just how far she has come from an empty apartment on a very different convention night.

Back in 1984, Baldwin was fresh out of college and back in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. She had just sublet a small, unfurnished apartment. There was a mat on the floor, a pan her aunt had given her and a tiny, black-and-white television set. Baldwin remembers sitting alone in the apartment, watching the Democratic National Convention that was held that summer in San Francisco.

"I was 22 years old, very interested in politics, but I didn't really know what my options were," Baldwin explained. "That 1984 convention was the one where the Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman, to run for vice president. I was so excited. So there I was, in my little apartment, watching Geraldine Ferraro delivering her acceptance speech and thinking, 'Wow, I can do anything in politics. The barriers are being broken. The sky's the limit."

Baldwin would go on to break a few of those barriers herself. After serving in local government, she won a seat in the legislature and, in 1998, she was the first out-of-the-closet lesbian elected to a seat in Congress.

As one of the youngest women in the House, a leading light on the Judiciary Committee, a key player in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and, still, the only open lesbian, Baldwin is something of a political celebrity nationally -- and as much of an inspiration to a growing number of young progressive women as Ferraro was for her two decades ago. "I think Tammy Baldwin is one of the most interesting people in Congress, and she's certainly one of the most interesting speakers at this year's convention," says Laura Flanders, the Air America radio host who recently authored a book on women in and around the Bush administration. "I'm more excited to hear her speak than just about anyone else on the list."

But when Baldwin addresses the convention and the country Monday night, on a bill that will feature Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, among other Democratic luminaries, she won't be addressing women's empowerment, or the same-sex marriage debate in which she led a spirited floor fight against conservative House Republicans just last week.

Rather, she will focus on what has long been her signature issue: health care reform.

As one of three members of the House chosen to address key issues of the campaign, Baldwin says, "It's my job to explain the challenges that we face in our health care system -- lack of coverage for tens of millions of Americans, inadequate coverage for tens of millions more -- and to explain why John Kerry would do a better job of addressing these issues than George Bush. In some senses, that won't be hard. There are night-and-day differences between their plans: John Kerry's got a proposal that would move quickly to cover 29 million more Americans, especially children. The president's plan only covers 1.6 million more people."

Baldwin, one of the most prominent backers in Congress of a single-payer health care system that would cover all Americans, admits that the proposal put forward by Kerry, the man Democrats will nominate this week for president, does not achieve the full coverage that a single-payer system would deliver. But she says that, after meeting with Kerry and reviewing his proposal, she is enthusiastic about making the case for the Massachusetts senator.

"My perspective is different on how we get there, but I'm very satisfied that John Kerry is committed to working toward getting quality health care for all Americans," says the congresswoman, who will save her single-payer rap for House debates. "The speech to the convention is not about walking on stage and telling the nation what Tammy Baldwin wants to do. This is a nominating convention and my job is to talk about why I think it is essential to nominate John Kerry."

That does not mean that Baldwin's address will be a dry recitation of Kerry's positions. She has written a speech that will use the stories of constituents from her Midwestern district to illustrate health care concerns and issues. And, in this day of scripted conventions, Baldwin says she was pleasantly pleased by the free hand she was given in preparing her remarks.

"I wrote a speech and submitted it to the Kerry people. They said they loved it – and it's a little too long," recalled Baldwin. "There was never any pressure on content, they just said I had to keep it to under 10 minutes."

Two other Democratic members of the House, Ohio's Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and New Jersey's Robert Menendez, will address the economy and national security issues, respectively, as part of the program that includes Baldwin. Tubbs-Jones is an African-American, Menendez is a Latino, and, of course, Baldwin is one of the handful of lesbian and gay members of the House. Unlike Republican conventions, however, Baldwin says she and the other speakers are on stage to deliver substance, not symbolism.

"Democrats aren't going to typecast anyone. They're embracing us as individuals who have made our mark on fundamental issues facing the country -- not just as symbols," says Baldwin. "That's what's really exciting about this party and this convention."

Still, Baldwin says she hopes there will be young women, some of them just out of college and sitting on the floor of their first apartments, who will be inspired both by what she has to say and by her presence in prime time.

"A few years ago, I met Geraldine Ferraro," Baldwin recalls. "I told her I probably wouldn't be in Congress if I hadn't seen her speech. I know that times have changed and there are a lot more women in prominent positions. But I would be so happy if I could do for someone else what she did for me in 1984."

The Rep From Fahrenheit 9/11

Watch this space for daily posts from the DNC in Boston.


"The American people appreciate being told the truth," announced Cynthia McKinney, as she and her cheering supporters celebrated what the former Georgia congresswoman described as "one of the greatest political comebacks in history."

Swept from office in a 2002 Democratic primary that saw thousands of Republicans cross party lines with the specific goal of defeating the woman whose fierce criticism of President Bush shocked Republicans and frightened timid Democrats, McKinney on Tuesday won the Democratic nod to retake her Atlanta-area seat. Running against a field of five other Democratic contenders that included a former Atlanta City Council president and a prominent state senator, McKinney stunned pundits by securing 51 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary election.

Because she won more than 50 percent of the vote, McKinney will not have to face a run-off election against a more moderate Democrat. In an overwhelmingly Democratic district, McKinney's chances of returning to the Congress next January look exceptionally good.

And McKinney's got some issues she would like to discuss with her former colleagues -- and the American people.

"We've got to make America, America again," McKinney declared in a victory speech that echoed the themes of the poet Langston Hughes. "We've got to reject backsliding on civil rights and human rights. We've got to get our troops out of harm's way and bring them home. We've got to turn around this Bush economy and get the American people back to work. In fact, while we're at it, let's just turn the whole Bush administration around and install a new resident in the White House!"

McKinney's antipathy toward the Bush administration made her a target in 2002, after she charged the president had failed to respond to warnings of terrorist threats and that allies of the president and vice president would benefit financially from a war in Iraq. Campaigning less than a year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with much of the Democratic political establishment arrayed against her, with Jewish groups criticizing her for supporting Palestinian rights, and with Republicans taking advantage of open primary laws to cross over and vote against the president's noisiest Congressional critic, McKinney lost the primary that year. After her defeat, she was written off by most political observers as a "conspiracy theorist" who was too radical and too outspoken on hot-button issues to ever make a comeback.

But a funny thing happened between 2002 and 2004.

Many of the concerns that McKinney had been attacked for addressing two years ago fit comfortably in the mainstream of the political discourse this year. Indeed, after former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke testified before the national 9-11 Commission about how the president and his aides had neglected warnings that Osama bin Laden and his followers intended to attack the United States, and after all the revelations regarding no-bid contracts and war profiteering by Dick Cheney's former employees at Halliburton, McKinney was able to campaign as truth teller who had been punished -- and then vindicated.

Still, most Democratic party leaders and her primary opponents presumed that McKinney could not secure the nomination. Two of her opponents raised more money than McKinney did, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the dominant newspaper in the region, continued to editorialize against her with a vengeance. McKinney eschewed television advertising and relied instead on an army of volunteers that concentrated on getting out the vote among African-Americans and white progressives, and on her flair for highlighting the issues.

McKinney and her backers campaigned at theaters that featured Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911," a showing of which the candidate attended with a crowd of backers that included the mother of a Georgia soldier killed in Iraq. Outside the theater, McKinney told reporters that Moore's movie was "a truth celebration." And, at screenings of the film in Atlanta, crowds cheered when the former congresswoman appeared to decry voter disenfranchisement during a segment dealing with the contested Florida presidential vote of 2000.

In an election that did not see substantial Republican cross-over voting -- a contested GOP Senate primary kept partisans in line -- McKinney ran well not only in African-American neighborhoods where she has traditionally been strong but in white precincts where many Democrats have come to see her as someone with the courage to take on the Bush administration. "She has the guts to speak truth to the government, and she's trying to help poor people and youth," Jesse McNulty, a teacher from Decatur, Georgia, explained when asked why he had voted for McKinney. "If Bush was to win. God forbid, at least we have McKinney up there (in Washington)."

Canceled Elections

What with all the controversy that arose after one of President Bush's appointees to the federal Election Assistance Commission sought to establish guidelines for suspending the November presidential election in case of a terrorist incident, citizens can be excused for presuming that this is a radical new notion. But it's not.

Borrowing several pages from the Joe Stalin Manual of Electoral Etiquette, the president's Republican allies canceled party primary elections in states across the country during the current election season -- often claiming that voting was pointless because President Bush was going to win anyway.

Last year, Republican-controlled legislatures in Kansas, Colorado and Utah canceled their state-run 2004 presidential primaries. The pattern continued even after the presidential campaign got going, with the suspension this year of presidential primaries in Florida, New York, Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota and Puerto Rico.

So it was that, while Democratic voters went to the polls to express their presidential preferences and select delegates to their party convention, the Republican process in many of the same states was effectively shut down. Instead of selecting delegates in primaries that attract significant numbers of voters, some of whom might dissent from party orthodoxy, Republicans in key states chose to play things out behind closed doors -- in caucuses or other "official" settings.

Why were so many Republican primaries canceled? Officially, the line was that Republican legislators and party leaders wanted to save the money it would cost to hold the primaries that President Bush would surely win.

Aside from the fact that canceling elections because someone is expected to win creates a democratic Catch-22, the cost-cutting talk is as bogus as the claim that a clear Bush victory could be divined from all those uncounted ballots from Florida's contested 2000 voting. The savings that can be achieved by canceling an election are small, while the cost to democracy is large. Indeed, when legislators voted to cancel the party primaries in Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed the measure and declared, "Arizona can well afford the price of democracy."

That is true of every state. So why did the cancellations really occur?

Because Republican party bosses did not want President Bush to be embarrassed by evidence of Republican opposition.

As it turns out, the concern was well founded. In several states that held Republican primaries this year, significant numbers of GOP voters rejected Bush.

In New Hampshire, for instance, 22 percent of citizens who selected Republican presidential primary ballots voted for someone other than Bush. (More than 3,000 New Hampshire Republican primary voters wrote in the name of Democrat John Kerry.) In Rhode Island, more than 15 percent of Republican primary voters rejected Bush. In Idaho and Oklahoma, more than 10 percent of Republicans cast Anyone-But-Bush votes, while almost 10 percent did so in Massachusetts. Even in the president's home state of Texas, more than 50,000 Republican primary voters refused to back Bush.

Despite the convention show that Republican leaders will put on in New York next month, Bush has inspired a good deal of grumbling among the faithful. The results from a number of the states that actually held Republican primaries reflect that embarrassing fact. There are no embarrassing results from states that canceled Republican primaries -- which, of course, was the point of the cancellations.

No wonder so many Americans got scared when Bush appointees started talking about plans to cancel the November elections. Perhaps they have come to the conclusion, based on all those canceled primaries, that this administration and its minions believe democracy is a tidier enterprise when the voters are excluded.

Dean Debates Nader

When Howard Dean's outsider campaign for Democratic presidential nomination began to take off year ago, Ralph Nader was at least somewhat enthusiastic about the enterprise, going so far as to suggest that the Vermont governor's challenge to the party establishment was in many senses an amplification of his own condemnations of Democratic drift away from core principles. For his part, candidate Dean was far more generous than most Democrats when it came to praising Nader's 40 year record of talking on established interests. The former Vermont governor actually moved from his old centrist positions toward what could be described as "Naderite" stances on issues such as free trade and regulating corporate power. And he reached out with some success to activists who had backed Nader's 2000 presidential campaign --especially on the nation's campuses.

There was even talk among Dean backers that, if their candidate secured the Democratic nomination, Nader might decide against making a third bid for the presidency in 2004.

But that was then, and this is the now where Dean is an enthusiastic campaigner for soon-to-be-nominated Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, while Nader is mounting an independent challenge to both Kerry and Republican President George W. Bush. And, as Friday's debate between Dean and Nader on National Public Radio's "Justice Talking" program illustrated, the two mavericks are no longer winking at one another.

"You were an insurgent who has now adopted the role of being a detergent for the dirty linen of the Democratic Party," Nader told Dean, who appeared on the program to argue that the consumer activist should drop his independent candidacy and back the Democratic ticket.

Dean shot back, "What I see in this (Nader) candidacy is the perfect becoming the enemy of the good."

And so it went.

"We're taking apart the Bush Administration in ways that the Democratic party is afraid to," Nader said, emphasizing his campaign's antiwar stance and his take-no-prisoners assault on the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists.

"This is not going to help the progressive movement in America," moaned Dean, who tried his best to suggest that Kerry is a legitimate standard bearer for that movement and added, "I wish you were on our team, Ralph, because we need you."

Anyone who imagined that Dean and Nader might have found some common ground with regards to the fall race came away from the debate sorely disappointed. But the truth is that no one who has spent much time watching Nader's campaign this year expected him to back off at the behest of Dean. While Nader has admitted to having been impressed with many aspects of Dean's insurgent campaign, these guys were never ideological soul mates. Nader was, and is, far closer to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, who continues to challenge Kerry for the nomination--albeit without much notice from the party or the media.

The Nader-Dean debate was less a serious dialogue about the possibility of forging a united front against Bush's reelection than a reminder that, while Nader and many Democrats share policy stances on issues ranging from opposition to the war to support for fair trade, single-payer health care and public financing of campaigns, they have not reached any kind of consensus with regard to the necessity of cooperation in the immediate political moment.

It wasn't for lack of trying by Dean, who agreed to debate Nader as part of a stepped up effort by Kerry backers to reach out to left-leaning voters who could stray from the Democratic fold. While Dean stopped short of accusing Nader of costing Democrat Al Gore the presidency in 2000, the former candidate did suggest that Nader could cost Kerry the presidency this year.

Describing the threat of a second Bush term as "an extraordinary emergency," the man whose own candidacy shook up the Democratic establishment almost as much as has Nader's, declared, "When the house is on fire, it's not the time to fix the furniture." Sure, Dean admitted, he might have differences with Kerry on some issues. But he argued the "progressives must unite behind Kerry" line with passion.

Nader was unconvinced. At several points, the independent candidate read down a list of sharp shots at Kerry--"corporate clone," "lesser of two evils." And then he reminded the Vermonter that those were Dean's own words from the primary season.

Nader allowed as how he preferred "Howard Dean the First," who took on the party establishment last year, as opposed to "Howard Dean the Second," who he accused of carrying the establishment's water this year.

Predictably, the conversation grew heated.

Dean accused Nader of peddling "disingenuous nonsense," and then noted that a group Nader founded, Public Citizen, had hailed Kerry's stances on many of the issues that are of concern to progressives. After a few more jabs at Nader, Dean announced that, "My purpose here is not to smear Ralph Nader."

At that point, a bemused Nader interjected, "Oh, no, not at all."

By now, the crowd was laughing.

But Dean remained serious, and on message. "I ask you not to turn your back on your legacy," he pleaded with Nader. A few minutes later, Dean banged on the independent candidate for what he suggested was just such an abandonment, citing reports that the Nader campaign had accepted the aid of religious right groups, such as the Oregon Family Council, in its quest to achieve ballot status.

"The way to change the country is not to get in bed with right-wing, anti-gay groups to get on the ballot," said Dean.

Nader griped about efforts by Democrats to keep him off ballots. Dean told Nader to renounce the Oregon Family Council and other right-wing groups that have allegedly aided his candidacy.

"Just renounce them!" demanded the Vermonter.

"Alright, I renounce them," Nader replied. But then he demanded that Dean renounce corporate wrongdoers that have donated to the Democrats, which the governor did. Then Dean started talking about someone else Nader should renounce. And, when all was said and done, neither Nader, nor Dean, had convinced the other man of much.

The most interesting question remained unasked and unanswered: Would Nader have backed off if Dean had emerged as the Democratic nominee?

But we do know the one suggestion that Dean would make to Nader. When "Justice Talking" host Margot Adler sought to ease the tension by soliciting advice from a former contender to a current candidate, Dean said that Nader should: "Lighten up."

Nader smiled and allowed as how, "That's better than what I thought he was going to say."

Bush Campaign's Political Fiction

At the risk of bringing too much clarity to the overheated discussion about whether Arizona Senator John McCain really was John Kerry's "first choice" for the number two spot on the Democratic ticket, it is appropriate to recall a June 11 statement issued by the Arizona senator's office.

"Senator McCain categorically states that he has not been offered the vice presidency by any one," said Mark Salter, the senator's chief of staff.

Salter issued that firm denial after the Associated Press was checking out the last of the rumors that Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, had offered McCain, a Republican senator whose disdain for President Bush has been well documented, a place on the ticket that will seek to remove Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from the White House.

According to AP, a pair of Democratic officials were peddling the story that "McCain has personally rejected John Kerry's overtures to join the Democratic presidential ticket and forge a bipartisan alliance against President Bush." That sounded pretty serious. But then, in recognition of the firm denial from McCain's office, the AP report backtracked. "Both officials said Kerry stopped short of offering McCain the job, sparing himself an outright rejection that would make his eventual running mate look like a second choice," AP acknowledged.

In the real world, that should have settled the matter. But, of course, politics is not the real world.

So, now, despite the fact that McCain "categorically states that he has not been offered the vice presidency by any one," the Republican National Committee is mounting an aggressive campaign to portray Kerry's choice, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, as the presidential candidate's "second choice." There's no subtlety here: A new Bush-Cheney television ad featuring a clip of McCain introducing Bush is titled ""First Choice." And every Republican spokesman who got his talking-points script was, by mid-day Tuesday, using the "second-choice" jab in their remarks regarding Edwards.

The ads and the jabs are disingenuous at their core. McCain is a loyal Republican, who is seeking reelection to the Senate this fall on the party line, so, yes, he has officially endorsed Bush. But it is no secret in Washington that McCain maintains a healthy personal disregard for Bush, whose campaign and its supporters launched visceral attacks on the Arizona senator during their fight for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. McCain has said that Bush "should be ashamed" of the character of his primary campaign. (When Bush asked whether McCain would join his ticket in 2000, the senator refused -- which would seem to suggest that Dick Cheney was Bush's "second choice.)

This year, McCain has been quick to counter the Bush campaign's attacks on Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran, sometime legislative ally and longtime friend. Asked in March, during a CBS interview, whether he agreed with assertions by the Bush campaign that Kerry would endanger national security, McCain replied, "I don't think that. I think that John Kerry is a good and decent man. I think he has served his country. I think he has different points of view on different issues and he will have to explain his voting record. But this kind of (attack) rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice."

Comments like that fed talk about the possibility that Kerry and McCain would link up to form a bipartisan "unity ticket" to depose Bush and Cheney. But it was always just that: talk. Undoubtedly, Kerry and McCain enjoyed the flirtation. And, yes, the dance extended for some time. But it never evolved into the sort of serious consideration that Kerry gave Edwards, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and various other Democrats.

It wasn't simply reticence on McCain's part that prevented this flirtation from developing into something more serious. Kerry had a problem with it, as well. McCain is an opponent of abortion rights and many gay rights measures, a backer of Republican tax-cutting schemes and one of the most vehement hawks in the Congress -- even before Bush was promoting war with Iraq, McCain joined with the atrocious Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, to advocate for military action. In other words, McCain may be a maverick, but he is hardly a certifiable moderate.

Choosing McCain would have opened rifts within the Democratic party, causing anti-war Democrats who already distrust Kerry to wonder whether a protest vote for Ralph Nader might make sense, and raising real concern among abortion rights activists who would have worried about positioning a consistent foe of a woman's right to choose to break tie votes in a closely-divided Senate.

The bottom line: Kerry knew he could not select McCain. It was a fun flirtation -- and, as with any flirtation, both men undoubtedly entertained fantasies about taking things further. But there is no evidence to suggest that the discussion ever reached the level of seriousness that the Republican spin now suggests.

There is, however, one Kerry-McCain mystery that remains unresolved: Does anyone believe that John McCain will actually vote for George w. Bush?

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