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NEW YORK -- It was a lot like a Johnny Cash song.
On one side of the street, wearing their suits and gowns, were the rich and powerful celebrating the renominations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
On the other side of the street, dressed in black, were the not-so-rich and not-so-powerful folks who didn't see much to celebrate in the news from this week's Republican National Convention.
There was a partisan divide, to be sure, outside the Sotheby's auction house Tuesday. But the real divide was over the legacy of Cash, the legendary country singer who died last year at the age of 71.
The American Gas Association and the Nissan Motor Co. had arranged a swank party to honor Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and his state's delegation to the Republican convention. And, since the event was being held at Sotheby's, which will be auctioning Cash memorabilia in mid-September, it was decided to make the event a "tribute" to the singer.
To a lot of Cash fans, however, that sounded like claiming that the Man in Black was a Republican.
And those were fighting words for folks who recall that it was Cash who sang: "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 his times."
The notion that the man who wrote those words would be used to promote the reelection of a Republican president did not sit well with Erin Siegel, a 22-year-old art student from Brooklyn, who urged Cash fans to gather across from Sotheby's Tuesday afternoon. "A lot of his political songs really represented issues the Republicans don't really seem to care about very much," she explained.
"I find this really offensive, for his name or his memory to be used like this," Siegel added.
Cash's daughter, singer Rosanne Cash, seemed to agree. She issued a statement declaring that the family wanted everyone to know that the event should "NOT be seen as a show of support for the Republican agenda."
Siegel and Rosanne Cash were not alone. Urged on by the www.defendjohnnycash.org website--with a manifesto declaring, "Johnny Cash spoke for the poor and under-represented. This administration speaks for the rich," and "The RNC has no right to tarnish the memory of Johnny Cash. We will rise up to defend an American hero"--hundreds of Cash fans showed up to protest outside Sotheby's.
They wore black and they carried guitars, a sea of New York cowboys and cowgirls singing, "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" and, of course, "Man In Black."
The Republican delegates attending the Sotheby's event were unimpressed. They hustled quickly into the auction house, some of them scowling at the critics--especially when the crowd in black started chanting "graverobbers" and "Bush out of NYC. Cash hated prisons and so do we."
As it happened, protest outside Sotheby's did not grow the prison population much. While hundreds of activists were arrested Tuesday as part of direct action protests against the Republicans, the men and women in black tended more toward loud recitations of Cash's anti-Vietnam war lines from "Man in Black," as well as the singer's observation that "things need changin' everywhere you go."
So which side of the street would Cash have chosen?
New Yorker Sander Hicks, a book publisher who wore his black with pride, had no doubt.
"Johnny Cash knew which side he was on," said Hicks, a fierce Bush critic. "So do we."
NEW YORK -- When US Senator John McCain took a shot at film maker Michael Moore in his speech to the Republican National Convention Monday night, he had no reason to know that the man who made the controversial documentary "Fahrenheit 9-11" was just a few hundred feet away from him.
But Moore was in Madison Square Garden with McCain and thousands of Republicans who, it would be fair to say, do not rank "Fahrenheit 9-11" high on their list of favorite films.
That was made obvious by the response of the delegates to McCain's unprecedented targeting of Moore in his prime-time address to the convention.
In a speech that was at once a spirited defense of the war with Iraq and a reminder that he is still available for consideration as a 2008 presidential nominee, McCain earned his biggest applause when he rejected any and all criticism of the Bush administration's decision to launch a preemptive war against the Middle Eastern country.
"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents," the Arizona Republican said, as the crowd began to roar its approval. "And certainly not, certainly not, a disingenuous film maker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace, when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children inside their walls."
Moore, who was seated in the press gallery of Madison Square Garden, pumped his fists in the air and tipped his hat to the McCain and the hooting delegates. As the crowd chanted "Four More Years," Moore used his hand to form an "L" sign to suggest that President Bush would lose in November.
Moore also held up two fingers, recalling a constant theme of the filmmaker this week: That George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have only two more months to go before they are voted out of office.
Everyone in the hall, including McCain and Moore, realized that a rare moment in American politics was playing out. It's not often, outside the context of a debate, that such charges and countercharges fly in close proximity. Nor is it all that often that a film achieves the level of public awareness that leads a prominent politician to attack its maker in a primetime convention speech. And it is certainly not common for the filmmaker to be in a position to respond in real time.
But Moore was there, and he did respond.
The Academy Award-winning documentary maker pointed out that "Fahrenheit 9-11" did not argue that Iraq was an oasis of peace. Instead, Moore noted, his film suggested that the Bush Administration stretched the truth when it argued that regime change had to be forced upon Iraq in order to avert the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found.
Still, Moore was not complaining too loudly.
"To bring up the film in the speech tonight, it's not good for the Republican Party," he explained. "It's just going to make more people say: 'I'd better go see this movie.' And when people see it, they don't feel much like voting Republican."
Moore's documentary, which challenges the Bush Administration's pre-war claims about those weapons of mass destruction and about supposed links between Iraq and the al-Queda network terrorists who attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001, was a hit. But Moore knows there are still plenty of Americans who haven't seen it.
While what he got from McCain was not exactly a plug, the film maker predicted many of those who had not bought a ticket might do so now. And that, he said, could turn McCain's jab into a problem for President Bush's reelection prospects in a closely contested November vote.
"A Republican pollster told me that, when they do surveys, 80 percent of the people going into the theaters are Kerry voters. But 100 percent of the people coming out are Kerry voters -- or at least they are open to voting for Kerry," Moore said. "The pollster told me that they couldn't find anyone who sees the film and then says they are definitely voting for Bush."
So what was the man who made a film designed to undo a Republican president doing at the Republican National Convention?
Moore's attended the convention on an assignment from USA Today, which has asked him to write a column about the gathering that will renominate two of favorite targets, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. While he had all the press credentials that were required for entry into the hall, Moore was held up for the better part of an hour by Madison Square Garden security and New York City police officers.
Moore was finally allowed to enter and took his place to the right of the podium at a table with other writers for USA Today. Photographers actually turned their cameras from the podium to snap shots of Moore and legions of reporters crowded around him. But, by the time McCain's primetime speech came, Moore was listening intently and taking notes.
That did not mean, however, that he was an impartial reporter.
His observations about the convention were every bit as barbed as the themes he hit in "Fahrenheit 9-11." Noting that most of the primetime speakers at the convention were "gay rights advocates and abortion rights advocates" who are at odds with the party's platform and the positions taken by the Bush administration, such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who spoke last night, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will speak tonight. "There's no way the Republicans can win if they are really themselves," argued Moore.
A number of Republicans were themselves when they saw Moore had crashed their party.
"I got no use for the man at all -- he's the scum of the earth," said Jimmy Gilbert, an alternate delegate from Lenoir, North Carolina, who followed Moore through the hallways of Madison Square Garden with a "Vive Bush" sign.
Diane Francis, a Texas Republican decked out in full jean shirt and cowboy hat regalia, grumbled about Moore's movie and said, "I hope he's got security. He could get killed in here."
But Moore insisted that he did not feel threatened. "I saw (conservative commentator) Sean Hannity on the floor at the Democratic convention. He was treated well. I'm sure they'll treat me well here. You don't think the Republicans are more mean-spirited than the Democrats, do you?" asked Moore, barely concealing a grin.
Besides, he said, "This is a celebration."
Referring to the coming election, Moore said, "I'm here to celebrate the fact that the Republicans only have a couple of months left. I'm here to celebrate the end of the Republican era. They've had four years. It's been rough, but it's almost over."
Forty years ago, when Republicans suffered their worst presidential election defeat of the post-World War II era, roughly 800,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Four years ago, when Republicans secured the White House in one of the closest presidential elections in the nation's history, roughly 300,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Like most urban areas, New York City has become dramatically more Democratic in recent decades. Yet, unlike Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and so many other American cities, New York still elects Republicans to serve as mayor. Of the last six mayors of New York City, three have been elected as Republicans: John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and the current occupant of City Hall, Mike Bloomberg. And it should be remembered that the man many believe to have been the city's greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was also affiliated with the Grand Old Party.
To be sure, New York Republicans are a different breed from, say, Texas Republicans. They get elected by arguing that they will manage the city more competently, not that they will turn it into Houston on the Hudson. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a wealthy publisher who was a generous contributor to Democratic campaigns before he bought the Republican nomination and was elected mayor in 2001, backs abortion rights, gay rights and new taxes. And he has grudgingly welcomed anti-Bush protesters to the city.
But Bloomberg, like Giuliani before him, is a tepid version of the New York Republicans of old. Perhaps by the Republican standards of today, he can still be called a "liberal." But he is no fighting liberal, as has been evident in the weeks leading up to the second Bush coronation.
Instead of challenging conservative orthodoxies -- on everything from the right to dissent to the right to choose -- Bloomberg has placated the Bush administration and its rightwing allies in the leadership of what was once a Grand Old Party.
Don't expect any fireworks today, when Bloomberg delivers a perfunctory welcome to the Republican National Convention delegates who are gathering in the city for the first time in the party's 150-year history.
At the most scripted convention in the history of American politics, Bloomberg will, like every other speaker this week, color within the lines drawn by the Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign -- which has effectively remade the party in its image. In so doing, Bloomberg will abandon the historic responsibility of New York Republicans, which was to pull a kicking and screaming Republican Party as far to the left as politically possible.
One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Republican Party is that what is left of its liberal wing is so wimped out as to be completely inconsequential.
Once upon a time, Republican mayors of New York would have picked up on the themes of the anti-war and anti-corporate protests that are filling this city's streets this week.
Had La Guardia been asked to welcome a Republican National Convention to New York City, he would never have agreed to read from the script distributed by the Tories who have taken charge of the party. He would have torn the script up and told the party to defend the interests of the poor against the rich, of labor unions against business interests, of consumers against corporations.
Lindsay would have lectured the delegates from Idaho and Iowa about the importance of funding urban programs. The passionate defender of civil liberties -- who Nat Hentoff said "wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies" -- would not have hesitated to condemn the Patriot Act. And, in a time of illicit and ill-advised warmaking, he would have suggested that solutions to problems at home could be found by redirecting U.S. policies abroad.
That's exactly what Lindsay did in 1968, when he told the Republican Party's platform committee that, "The course we have been following in Vietnam, I submit, has not been one of a great nation." Lindsay told fellow Republicans that staying the course in Vietnam would prevent the United States from becoming a great nation. "For the truth, I'm afraid, is that we cannot achieve either the cities or the society we would like as long as we continue the war in Vietnam," the mayor explained. "We cannot spend more than $24 billion a year in Vietnam and still rebuild our cities. We cannot speak of non-violence at home when we are displacing, maiming, and killing thousands of Asians for the professed purpose of protecting the peace in a land half way across the world."
Four decades later, the Republican Party could stand to hear the mayor of New York deliver a similar message -- with only the name Iraq replacing that of Vietnam. Unfortunately, while New York has a Republican mayor, it does not have a La Guardia or a Lindsay.
The principle that people of good faith might disagree on issues such as abortion, family planning and gay and lesbian rights lost by a 4-1 margin when members of the Republican party's platform committee debated the notion this week. According to most media, that was the "news" from the Grand Old Party's platform deliberations -- just as the failure of moderate Republicans to move the party toward the center on social issues has been the "news" of every Republican National Convention since 1976.
Christopher Barron, an activist with the Log Cabin Republicans, the party's largest gay and lesbian rights group, was correct when he complained that the platform -- with its militant anti-abortion rights plank and its endorsement of a Constitutional amendment designed to ban same-sex marriages -- makes a joke of the efforts of convention planners to present a moderate face by featuring convention speakers who happen to be pro-choice and sympathetic to gay rights. "You can't craft a vicious, mean-spirited platform and then put lipstick on the pig by putting Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger on in prime time," explained Barron.
In truth, there was never any chance that Republican moderates would soften the party's official stances on hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gay rights. There was never even a chance that the platform committee, which met in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, would endorse a "unity plank" acknowledging that issues involving reproductive freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians can be "complex" and that "Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in this platform."
Yet most of the news stories regarding the platform committee's sessions focused entirely on the empty "debate" on social issues that saw Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who moved to reject the "unity plank," declare that with a straight face that, "We are the party of the open door."
Unfortunately, the real story of the platform process was not the latest failure of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Choice to get any respect from the party to which they have maintained a touching, if not particularly rational, loyalty through brush off after brush off. The real story was the revelation that the 150-year-old Republican Party has ceased to exist as an independent entity.
It is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, much as the Brown & Root military-contracting firm is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Halliburton. Like everything else about the 2004 convention of this once-great party, the platform carries a great big Bush-Cheney imprint and no evidence whatsoever that grassroots Republicans had any say at all in the process of shaping their party's agenda.
No one expected the Republican Party to pick a fight with its maximum leaders. Platform deliberations for both parties long ago ceased to be the ideological battles that they were in the 1960s and 1970s. That was evident in this year's Democratic platform writing process, which was far too deferent to the demands of John Kerry's presidential campaign.
But the Democrat deliberations, as controlled as they were, looked like a free-for-all compared with the micromanaged Republican sessions.
Veteran platform committee members and observers were stunned by the extent that, more than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, this platform is the reflection not of the ideas and values of people who were supposed to draft the manifesto but of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. The 90-page document opens up with a 41-page apologia for Bush's handling of the war on terror; while the rest of the document mirrors the Bush line -- or lack of line -- on every issue from tax cuts to stem-cell research.
To be sure, the GOP manifesto is a conservative document. But it is Bush conservatism that defines it, not the thinking of grassroots Republicans. Thus, on the divisive issue of immigration reform, the platform language reflects the administration's "have-it-both-ways" line by offering only a murky promise that the country's new immigration rules will be "legal, safe, orderly and humane."
"It's Clinton-like doublespeak in a Republican platform," grumbled Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is the party's most visceral critic of the administration's attempts to develop of "guest worker" program for immigrants.
Tancredo may be wrong on this and other issues, but he is right about the doublespeak.
"This platform is less a forward-looking declaration of party principle than a backward-looking review of President Bush's four years, more so than with past incumbent presidents," noted conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has been attending Republican platform hearings for decades. "(The) Bush White House completely abandoned the old platform process."
To a dramatically greater extent than the reelection campaigns of Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign placed its imprint on the manifesto that will be approved by delegates at next week's convention. Nixon and Reagan both accepted a measure of genuine debate and dissent within the Republican Party -- indeed, the 1984 platform deviated substantially from the language Reagan aides had sought on tax policy. But those days are gone.
The platform process illustrated the eerie extent to which the Republican Party has become nothing more than an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Instead of letting the roughly 100 members of the platform committee craft a document and then debate it -- as both parties have traditionally done -- a draft document was handed to platform committee members at 7 p.m. on the night before they were expected to approve it. Novak said the drafting process was so secretive and controlled that it came to "resemble the Manhattan Project of developing the atomic bomb."
"The process," Novak observed, "fits the Bush white House's authoritarian aura that has tempered enthusiasm within the party on the eve of the national convention."
Two news stories, of vastly differing consequence, have over the past week raised the question of how issues of war and peace will play in this year's presidential contest:
1.) The summer-long controversy over claims and commercials produced by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group continued, as a now widely-discredited circle of embittered Vietnam veterans used money from associates of President Bush and White House political czar Karl Rove to try and develop doubts about aspects of John Kerry's military service 35 years ago.
2.) US Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, the vice chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and one of the senior Republican members of the House International Relations Committee, announced after a thorough review of the information available to him that he had come to the conclusion that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was unjustified. "I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," explained Bereuter, who added that, "knowing what I know about the reliance on tenuous or insufficiently corroborted intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD (Wepaons of mass destruction) arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified."
Guess which story the news media focused on with such intensity that both Kerry and Bush were forced to address it publicly.
Here's a hint: It's not the story about the war that is currently going on.
It's no secret that most of the American media no longer covers contemporary politics in a serious manner. But it is still remarkable that major media in this country is so addicted to spin that its practitioners are incapable of recognizing real news when it develops.
Make no mistake: Bereuter's statement is real news. In fact, it is the sort of news that ought to dominate today's national discourse in the same way that similar pronouncements by prominent members of former President Lyndon Johnson's Democratic party came to dominate the 1960s discourse about what was then a burgeoning conflict in Southeast Asia.
When a ranking member of the president's own party, who has direct and detailed knowledge of the issues involved, says the commander-in-chief led the country into an unjustified war, that's a big deal.
And that is exactly what Doug Bereuter did.
In a letter to constituents who had contacted him regarding the war, the 13-term congressman condemned the Bush Administration for launching the war "without a broad and engaged international coalition." Bereuter explained that the Administration made "fundamental and predictable" missteps. Because of those missteps, he wrote, "we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess."
"The cost in casualties is already large and growing," the Congressman observed, "and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible."
Bereuter, whose reputation as an expert on foreign affairs is such that he will upon his retirement from Congress at the end of this month become the president of the Asia Foundation, suggested that the costs of this war extend far beyond Iraq. Because of the Administration's actions, the Congressman said, "our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."
If his blunt statements about the current crisis were not enough, Bereuter raised the prospect that the Bush-Cheney Administration might have misused intelligence in order to draw the country into the war. "Left unresolved for now is whether intelligence was intentionally misconstrued to justify military action," noted the veteran representative from Nebraska.
As indictments of an administration's military adventurism by senior members of Congress go, that's a very serious statement. As indictments of an Administration by senior members of Congress who happen to be members of the president's own party -- and who are speaking not in a historical context but in a time of war -- go, Bereuter's four-page letter contained all the political and policy drama that the public discourse could possibly demand.
Yet Bereuter's statement, released quietly and with no Washington spin machine ginning it up, was barely heard in the echo chamber of Campaign 2004.
Even after Nebraska newspapers spread the word of Bereuter's comments regarding the current war and the current president, talk radio programs continued to devote hour after hour to discussions of what happened on what river in 1969, cable television programs continued to feature endless debates about whether Kerry's swift boat turned left or right on the way to Cambodia, the anchors and hosts of network news programs breathlessly reported Bob Dole's grumbling about how Kerry needed to apologize for not taking more hits in Southeast Asia, and reporters for the major newspapers that are supposed to maintain some sense of perspective pressed Bush and Kerry to address every new twist on a swift-boat journey that is starting to seem almost as endless as the Vietnam War itself.
What of the questions that Bereuter's statement raised about the current war and the current Administration? Are they being explored on talk-radio shows? On cable television? On network news programs? On the front pages of daily newspapers in New York and Washington and Chicago and Los Angeles?
Outside of continuing coverage by a few local newspapers in Nebraska -- especially the Lincoln Journal Star -- the story of Doug Bereuter's heresy flamed out after the first day.
Perhaps, 35 years from now, during some future presidential campaign, the major media of the United States will catch up to the story of the Iraq War. The way things are going, it may be an ongoing conflict.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.