John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Bush Nominee is Blocked

In the first significant setback for the Bush Administration in the 108th Congress, Senate Democrats blocked a move Thursday by Republicans to force a vote on controversial judicial nominee Miguel Estrada.

After weeks of on-and-off debate regarding Estrada's nomination to the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, attempted to break what has evolved into a filibuster against the man who many legal observers believe the Bush Administration is grooming for an eventual Supreme Court nomination. To break the filibuster, Frist needed 60 votes. But he could only muster 55 -- from 51 Republicans and 4 Democrats -- as 44 Democratic senators held firm despite intense pressure from the Administration and its conservative allies.

"This vote was tremendously important for the future of thefederal judiciary and for the rights and freedoms Americans count on the courts to protect, argued People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas, whose group has been a key player in the campaign to block Estrada's nomination as part of a broader effort to prevent the Administration from packing the federal courts with rightwing judicial activists. "It is a major loss for the Bush Administration and its political allies, who have tried to bully senators into submission with outrageous threats and accusations."

When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, announced in February that his caucus had the votes to block a vote on the Estrada nomination unless the nominee and the White House responded to unanswered questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members, Congressional observers were skeptical. The last time a Senate filibuster succeeded in preventing a president from advancing a judicial nominee was in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice.

Thursday's vote was a clear win for Daschle, and for legal, civil rights, labor and women's groups that have campaigned for months to convince Democrats that Estrada has not met the basic standards for confirmation. Only four Senate Democrats -- Georgia's Zell Miller, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Florida's Bill Nelson of Florida and Louisiana's John Breaux -- voted to break the filibuster. (Florida Democrat Bob Graham, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who is recovering from surgery, did not vote.)

Conservative groups worked hard to break Democratic senators loose prior to Thursday's vote, ramping up a campaign that suggested Democrats who voted to block Estrada were thwarting the aspirations of the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population. Estrada, a Honduran immigrant, would be the first Latino to sit on the DC Circuit bench and, if confirmed, could eventually become the first Latino on the Supreme Court.

In the days before the vote, Neas said, he was troubled by "intimidation tactics employed by the Bush White House and Senate Republican leaders. Especially disturbing were the repugnant efforts of a number of Republicans to characterize opponents of Mr. Estrada's confirmation as anti-Hispanic.Groups such as People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice countered fierce lobbying -- which even involved radio ads in the states of key senators -- by noting that the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project had joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in urging rejection of Estrada's nomination.

Ultimately, however, Daschle has been successful in holding the majority of Democrats together in large part because of concerns about Estrada's failure to answer questions posed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the refusal of the White House to release working papers that Estrada produced while working in the Solicitor General's office.

The White House has stonewalled the request for the papers, and has refused to allow Estrada to participate in a public hearing where he could be asked further questions. Those hardball tactics have upset enough Democratic senators, say Hill aides, that even moderate and conservative members who might be inclined to support Estrada are sticking with the strategy initiated by Daschle, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy and Vermont's Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

While Frist says he will keep pushing for a vote on the nomination, Daschle says, "The vote will not change regardless of how many votes are cast. We feel strongly as a caucus and will continue to hold our position as a caucus."

Media Meltdown Obscures FCC Debate

As if there was need for more evidence that major media is neglecting to cover Federal Communications Commission deliberations on whether to fundamentally alter media ownership rules, a new survey shows that 72 percent of Americans know "nothing at all" about the debate in which FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says "fundamental values and democratic virtues are at stake."

Only four percent of 1,254 adults surveyed by the Project For Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press said they had heard "a lot" about the FCC's deliberations regarding rule changes that could redefine the shape and scope of American media.

Echoing concerns voiced by consumer, public interest and labor groups, as well as a growing number of members of Congress, Copps has argued that the FCC should schedule more official hearings on the proposed rule changes. The commissioner also says that major media outlets -- especially the nation's television networks -- have a responsibility to cover the debate over whether to allow greater consolidation of media ownership at the national level and the removal of barriers to control by individual corporations of most of the television, radio and newspaper communications in particular communities.

"I'm frankly concerned about consolidation in the media, and particularly concerned that we are on the verge of dramatically altering our nation's media landscape without the kind of debate and analysis that these issues clearly merit," Copps said as the commission's sole scheduled official hearing opened Thursday in Richmond, Virginia.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has long been the commission's most ardent advocate for rule changes favored by media corporation lobbyists, has resisted efforts to open up the debate. Thursday's hearing in Richmond offered some explanation for why Powell has sought to constrain the dialogue.

Despite rough winter weather, hundreds of critics of the proposed relaxation of controls on consolidation packed the hall where the commissioners heard testimony. While representatives of television networks and newspaper chains argued for the rule changes, the clear signal from the crowd was expressed by David Croteau, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who told commissioners: "Less regulation will be a windfall for a few giant media corporations. It is likely to be a huge mistake for the rest of us."

Consolidation has already changed the face of media for the worse, argued Rain Burroughs, a Richmond daycare center worker. Burroughs told the commission that "the best programs don't get to air because of the obsession to maximize profits. Today, we are bombarded with sensationalist, mindless, violent shows."

During the public comment period, speaker after speaker rose to express opposition to rules changes that would lead to more consolidation and commercialization. As the day came to a close, speakers suggested to the commissioners that the public had spoken -- loudly -- against the proposed changes.

"What we are seeing is that, as the public becomes more aware that these issues are on the table before the FCC, people are chomping at the bit to say, 'No, don't do this,'" said Michael Bracy, director of government relations for the Future of Music Coalition, which recently produced a report that exposed the damage done to diversity and content by the consolidation of radio ownership made possible by rule changes in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The new poll from the Project For Excellence in Journalism confirms Bracy's assessment. Among Americans who said they thought that allowing companies to own more TV, radio and newspaper outlets would make a difference, the survey found that by a 3-1 margin they believe the impact will be a negative one. The proportion of those surveyed who said that the impact of the changes would be negative rose significantly among those Americans who said they knew "a little" or "a lot" about the current debate.

Copps argued in his statement at the opening of Thursday's hearing that the dialogue needs to be dramatically expanded before the FCC makes any decisions on the proposed rules changes. "While the participation of business representatives is essential, so is the input of consumers, labor, educational and religious, minority organizations, and Americans who have never heard of the FCC," Copps said. "We can pretend that these folks read the Federal Register and can afford lawyers to fully participate in our inside-the-beltway decision making. But we'd be kidding ourselves. This decision is too important to make in a business-as-usual way. We need America's buy-in..."

Despite the good dialogue in Richmond, however, that buy-in has yet to occur. Scant major media coverage has created a situation where, as the Project For Excellence in Journalism survey illustrates, most Americans still do not know that the future of media -- and the democracy and culture it influences -- is up for grabs.

Exit Phil Donahue

The day before MSNBC announced that it was pulling the plug on Phil Donahue's nightly show, the man who pretty much invented talk TV was interviewing actress and author Rosie O'Donnell. But this was not the standard celebrity interview. Rather, Donahue led O'Donnell through a serious discussion of her feelings about whether the U.S. should go to war with Iraq. "Well, I think like every mother, every mother that I've spoken to, every day when I go to pick up my kids from school, every person I've spoken to has said they're against this war, for basic reasons," said O'Donnell. "I don't want to kill innocent mothers and children and fathers in another country when there are alternate mean available, at least at this point." And when Donahue asked why anyone should take what celebrities say about war seriously, O'Donnell came back, "Nobody wants to interview the mother of the two kids in my daughter's class who feels the same way. I stand with 36 women every day outside the elementary school. And if any newscaster wanted to speak to any member of the PTA across America, I have a feeling they would say the same thing I'm saying. I'm not speaking as a celebrity. I'm speaking as a mother and I'm speaking for the mothers who don‘t have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show."

As of Friday, no one will have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show. The show has been cancelled, and with it will be lost one of the few consistent forums for progressive voices on cable television. Just this month, Donahue's guest list has included U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Institute for Policy Studies foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Global Exchange director and "Code Pink" anti-war activist Medea Benjamin. And it is a pretty good bet that, now that Donahue is going off the air, we will not soon see another show like the one where he featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins in front of a crowd of laid-off Enron employees. And we certainly are not likely to see such a show on MSNBC, which appears to be veering hard to the right in its programming -- adding former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Florida, as regular contributors, and conservative talk radio personality Michael "Savage Nation" Savage as a regular host. MSNBC will temporarily replace Donahue starting next week with "Countdown: Iraq," hosted by Lester Holt. Talk about adding insult to injury. Getting cancelled is bad enough; getting cancelled to make way for a program devoted to anticipating an unnecessary war is just plain awful.

Media analyst Rick Ellis, who writes for the excellent www.allyourtv.com website, makes a strong case that Donahue is being elbowed off the air at this point -- when his ratings have actually been ticking upward -- precisely because it appears that a war is coming. According to Ellis, Donahue's "fate was sealed a number of weeks ago after NBC News executives received the results of a study commissioned to provide guidance on the future of the news channel." According to Ellis, the study suggested "that Donahue presented a ‘difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" and expressed that, in a time of war, Donahue's show might become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

NBC executives aren't commenting on the report. But no one is seriously questioning the validity of Ellis' report.

That said, Donahue's disappearance is about more than politics.

Donahue's show was never as successful as it could have been. Coming off a strong supporting role in the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000, and a series of television appearances that saw him challenge the conventional (Republican AND Democratic) wisdom about September 11 and its aftermath, Donahue was to enter the cable wars as a pox-on-all-their-houses lefty who would open his show up to a freewheeling dialogue about war and peace, corruption and cronyism, Republican wrongheadedness and Democratic disappointments. In theory, the show sounded like it might actually allow MSNBC to credibly argue that it was "fiercely independent." In reality, Donahue was sent into to battle Fox's Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Connie Chung with one lobe tied behind his brain. Pressured by desperate MSNBC executives to fit into the contemporary talk-TV mold ("Be like O'Reilly, only nicer -- but not too nice"), Donahue was never allowed to be Donahue. For every program that featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, there were ten where Donahue was forced to ask polite questions of second-string conservative pundits.

Where his conservative competitors never worry about fairness or balance, Donahue was under constant pressured to clog his show's arteries with deadly dull apologists for all things Bush. And when that got too boring, he was pressured to steer the show away from politics and toward the glitzy and the maudlin. The show got worse and worse, the ratings dipped, and Donahue often seemed physically pained by the absurd demands that were being placed on him. Finally, when every dumb idea known to cable television had been tried, someone got the bright idea of allowing Donahue to do what he used to do best -- interview interesting guests and then take questions from a live audience. The guests were better -- Tutu was great, and so was Pat Buchanan. The crowds were enthusiastic. And the ratings were rising.

In its final, more substantive incarnation, "Donahue" was actually beating the much more aggressively promoted MSNBC program, "Hardball With Chris Matthews." By the same token, with an average nightly viewership of 446,000, Donahue was still trailing far behind CNN's Connie Chung and Fox's O'Reilly.

Now that Donahue has been ditched, conservative commentators and network executives will tell themselves that there is no audience for progressive voices on television. They will, of course, be wrong on the broad premise -- some of O'Reilly's best shows feature feisty progressives like U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Bernie Sanders. And they will be wrong more specifically about Donahue. We will never know for sure whether Phil Donahue could have seriously competed with conservative hosts like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. What we do know, for sure, is that MSNBC executives were never willing to trust Phil Donahue -- or the American television viewing audience.

Echoing Wellstone on War, Activism

When hundreds of labor, academic and community activists gathered in a City University of New York's graduate school auditorium this week to honor the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, the speaker list was itself a tribute to the late Minnesota senator and his partner in marriage and politics. Author Barbara Ehrenreich, scholar Frances Fox Piven, Institute for Policy Studies director John Cavanagh, Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett and veteran labor leader Bob Muehlenkamp called on the memory of the Wellstones to energize the struggles for econnomic and social justice, and peace, that lost two of their greatest champions when the couple died in a plane crash last fall.

But the standout address of the night came from the member of Congress who may well be the truest heir to the Wellstone mantle. US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, drew cheer after cheer for a speech that echoed the hope, courage, passion and political timeliness that characterized the career of the unabashedly progressive senator who died less than two weeks before Minnesota voters were expected to reelect him last fall.

"Paul Wellstone taught us that a politics of conviction is a winning politics," said Schakowsky, who like Wellstone was a grassroots organizer long before she ever thought of running for public office.

Like many in the multigenerational crowd that attended the Wellstone tribute, Schakowsky wore her convictions on her sleeve -- or, more precisely, her jacket -- in the form of a large antiwar pin.

Along with Wellstone, whose last major vote was cast in opposition to President Bush's request for blank-check authorization to wage war against Iraq, Schakowsky established herself early as a courageous and consistent foe of the administration's efforts to launch an unwise and unnecessary attack on Iraq. But Schakowsky did not hold herself up as a hero. Rather, she gave credit to the raucously antiwar crowd, and the rest of the movement that has filled the streets of cities around the world with shouts of "Not In Our Name!", for slowing the rush to war.

"For the fact that we are not at war today, Paul Wellstone would thank you," said the member of Congress from Chicago. "Had it not been for this outpouring of opposition, I think we would already be at war." Recalling last fall's Congressional vote on authorizing Bush to pursue war with Iraq, Schakowsky noted, "Members of Congress did hear you. Sixty percent of the Democrats voted against that resolution... and this was against our own (party) leadership."

It is that fact, Schakowsky said, that ought to inspire activists to reject the cynicism that says a war cannot be stopped and to keep struggling to block Bush's military adventurism. "I'm asking you tonight not to accept the inevitability of war," Schakowsky told the crowd. "If Paul Wellstone would have accepted the conventional wisdom, if he had accepted the supposed inevitability, he never would have won."

Then Schakowsky "pulled a Wellstone." She detailed the Bush Administration's assaults on individual liberty, workers rights, education and the environment, as well as the administration's wrongminded approach to foreign policy, and then Schakowsky said, "If you feel overwhelmed by that list, if it makes you feel tired... Get over it!"

Borrowing a line from the trademark calls to action that made Paul Wellstone a touchstone for so many progressives, Schakowsky finished by urging the crowd into the voting booths and the streets. "We need you!" she shouted over a rising tide of applause. "We need you!"

'The Whole World Is Against This War'

"The whole world is against this war. Only one person wants it," declared South African teenager Bilqees Gamieldien as she joined a Cape Town antiwar demonstration on a weekend when it did indeed seem that the whole world was dissenting from George W. Bush's push for war with Iraq.

Millions of protesters marched into the streets of cities from Tokyo to Tel Aviv to Toronto and Bush's homestate of Texas to deliver a message expressed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to a crowd of more than one million in London: "It's not too late to stop this war."

Crowd estimates for demonstrations of the kind being seen this weekend are always a source of controversy, especially when nervous politicians -- like British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- try to convince journalists and the public to dismiss the significance of the protests even before they begin. But, faced with a historic show of dissent, even the constantly spinning Blair had to acknowledge that the cost for his unwavering support of the Bush administration on Iraq is turning out to be "unpopular" in his own land.

Britain's Guardian newspaper described the London march as the largest peace demonstration in the country's history. The headline on Sunday morning's Observer newspaper read, "One million. And still they came," and announced that the "massive turnout surpassed the organisers' wildest expectations and Tony Blair's worst fears." Organizers of the British march estimated that as many as 1.5 million were cheering as London Mayor Ken Livingstone told the crowd, "So let everyone recognise what has happened here today: that Britain does not support this war for oil. The British people will not tolerate being used to prop up the most corrupt and racist American administration in over 80 years."

German police said 500,000 marched in Berlin, while organizers put the number considerably higher. In Rome, an estimated one million marched on a day when newspapers reported that polls show 85 percent of Italians do not support a war to disarm Iraq. Organizers put the size of the Madrid crowd at 600,000, while city officials said as many as 1.3 million took to the streets in Barcelona. At least 300,000 people gathered in cities across France.

The protests spread around the globe, to Canada and Mexico, to Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands and Russia, and to Bahrain, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Iraq, South Korea Thailand.

New York's streets were jammed by a crowd that stretched 20 blocks down the city's First Avenue and overflowing onto Second and Third avenues. Estimates of the actual turnout varied wildly, but it seemed reasonable to suggest that at least 300,000 protesters converged for the midtown rally site where Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich appeared. "Peace! Peace!" shouted Tutu. "Let America listen to the rest of the world -- and the rest of the world is saying: 'Give the inspectors time.'"

Among those expressing opposition to plans for war was Adele Welty, whose son, Timothy, was a firefighter killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Timothy was at the World Trade Center on September 11 to save lives," said Welty. "I don't feel that he would sanction innocent lives either in this country or in Iraq being shed in his name."

The larger-than-expected crowds that rallied around the world fed a renewed confidence among peace activists that the message of signs carried at one of the weekend's first rallies -- in Auckland, New Zealand -- might yet turn out to be right: "We can stop this war."

As yachting's America's Cup opened Saturday in that New Zealand city, a plane chartered by Greenpeace circled over the harbor pulling a huge banner with the words: "No War, Peace Now."

"Bugga off bully boy Bush" was the chant on the streets of Auckland as thousands of anti-war demonstrators proudly launched a weekend of protests. "Millions of people around the world are rallying today to say no to war and New Zealand is the first country to send this message," said Greenpeace's Robbie Kelman. "Countries like New Zealand must add their weight to efforts for a peaceful solution to this crisis."

The point of the global protests, according to Kucinich, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who will travel to Iowa this week to launch a bid for the Democratic presidential race as an explicitly anti-war candidate, was to add grassroots pressure to the diplomatic push to avoid war.

Echoing the view of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who successfully thwarted a Bush administration to ramp up support for war at Friday's United Nations Security Council meeting, the protests around the world argued that war is not justified at a point when evidence indicates that U.N. inspectors are making progress toward disarming Iraq.

Dramatic early evidence of global antiwar sentiment came from Australia, where an estimated 200,000 people filled the streets of Melbourne Friday to protest their government's support of US plans to attack Iraq.

"This is a huge statement by the people of Melbourne, and the people of Australia to John Howard: that he's gone the wrong way and should turn around," said Australian Senator Bob Brown, a Green, who last week led a successful effort by senators to censure Australian Prime Minister John Howard for dispatching troops to the Persian Gulf region. "The people of Australia don't see this as our war."

Organized by labor, religious and student groups, the Melbourne protest was so large that commentators were speculating on the prospect that Howard could face serious political turmoil over his decision to back US President George W. Bush's push for war with Iraq. Signs at the demonstration Friday announced that this would be "Howard's End." And Australian Senator Natasha Stott Despoja told the crowd, "It is an amazing scene here with you today in a show of solidarity to send a strong message to Prime Minister Howard and the Australian government that Australians don't want war."

The Australian demonstration was described by reporters on the scene as the largest the country has seen in more than 30 years. And it was just the beginning of an around-the-world show of opposition to moves by the US, Britain and a handful of allies to force the United Nations to effectively endorse an preemptive attack on Iraq.

More than 600 demonstrations are expected to take place in communities around the world on -- from San Francisco to New York to London to Seoul, and from Antarctica to Iceland -- by the end of the weekend mobilization. Demonstrations are expected to take place in at least 60 countries. Most of the demonstrations were peaceful, although there were skirmishes in Athens; in New York, where police attempted to prevent marchers from getting near the United Nations; and in Colorado Springs, where arrests were made after demonstrators blocked a road near an Air Force base.

The New York demonstration was one of more than 200 planned for this weekend in US cities from Augusta, Maine, to Yakima, Washinbgton, and Wausau, Wisconsin. What was supposed to be a relatively modest Los Angeles demonstration gew so large that television reporters there were reporting breathlessly on the "massive" show of opposition to war. Actors Martin Sheen and Mike Farrell and director Rob Reiner joined a march that filled Hollywood Boulevard from curb to curb for four blocks. Police claimed 30,000 turned out, while organizers said the crowd ultimately swelled to almost 100,000.

Sunday march in San Francisco drew an estimated 250,000, according to estimates reported in the local media, making it one of the largest demonstrations that west coast city has ever seen. "How do you want to spend $1.5 trillion? On our children? Or on war?" Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, a Democratic state legislator from Santa Rosa, asked the crowd. The crowd roared for the kids, and against the war.

While weekend demonstrators in the US and Britain were seeking to change the minds of their leaders, crowds in Germany and France were expressing support for moves by the French and German governments to block Bush administration initiatives at the UN. "Help to prevent new suffering, new destruction and new death," read a sign carried by survivors of the Allied bombing of Dresden at the close of World War II. Saturday's huge protests in Berlin mocked U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's criticisms of European war foes, with signs reading, "Old Europe is Against the War."

No leader could have felt more pressure Saturday than Britain's Blair, whose personal approval ratings have dipped dramatically as he has continued to side with Bush's position on war.

Understanding that a switch by Blair could force Bush to rethink his position, Jesse Jackson flew to London to join rock stars, actors, playwrights, former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella and former British parliamentarian Tony Benn, who recently traveled to Iraq to interview Saddam Hussein, for the Hyde Park rally. "Iraq is a challenge that must be put in perspective. It is not the priority that Bush and Blair have made it to be," Jackson said after arriving in London.

Among those marching with Jackson and the others was British author John Mortimer, long one of the most prominent members of Blair's Labour Party. Noting revelations that Blair's government doctored intelligence reports to create a false impression that they revealed clear and present dangers from Iraq, Mortimer said in announcing his decision to join the London demonstration: "We are being persuaded into war by lies and half truths. A secret service document, making it clear there is no evidence of a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, is disregarded. A 10-year-old article by an undergraduate is presented, and solemnly referred to by Colin Powell as if it were the latest government report, and no effort has been made for our Government to tell the truth about it."

KUCINICH BID: US Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, confirmed Sunday that he will launch an exploratory committee in preparation for a presidential bid. One of the most outspoken foes of war with Iraq in Congress, Kucinich appeared at Saturday's anti-war rally in New York and then traveled to Iowa, the first Democratic caucus state to headline a planned rally in Des Moines.

A former mayor of Cleveland, Kucinich says his candidacy will be about more than just opposition to war with Iraq. But the Ohio added that, unlike several of the other Democratic contenders, he will not hesitate to address questions of war and peace bluntly. "We need to start asking why is war considered to be an instrument of policy," argues Kucinich. "Inspections are an adequate substitute for war, diplomacy is a substitute for war, human relations are a substitute for war, and so I think that there is no case made for war."

At a Sunday campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the Democratic nominating process will begin with caucuses next Saturday, Kucinich declared, "Yes, I am a candidate for peace."The 75 Democratic activists present responded by giving the new candidate a standing ovation.

Dems Move to Block Estrada

Setting up what could be the boldest challenge yet to the Bush administration's drive to pack the nation's courts with conservative judicial activists, Senate Democrats have signaled that they will mount a filibuster to block a Senate vote on the nomination of Bush favorite Miguel Estrada to serve on the powerful U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The administration and Republican operatives in Washington and around the country have waged a fierce campaign to win Senate approval for Estrada, a former solicitor general who is a favorite of movement conservatives and is widely viewed as a likely contender for a future nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. As recently as Tuesday, as the Senate entered the third day of deliberation on the nomination, the White House issued a statement from Bush demanding a quick "up or down vote on the Senate floor." When he learned of the decision by Democrats to filibuster, Bush grumbled about how "a handful of Democrats in the Senate are playing politics with his nomination, and it's shameful politics."

But it is not just "a handful of Democrats." Senate Democratic leaders say that more than 40 members will join efforts to block a vote. The delay, Democrats say, will extend at least until the White House releases information regarding Estrada's legal views. That information was repeatedly requested by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to the panel's 10-9 vote in late January to recommend approval of Estrada. The committee vote split along party lines, and was one of the first indicators that the new Republican leadership of the committee and the Senate would seek to force votes on even the most controversial judicial nominees.

Some Democratic senators have indicated that they would be inclined to vote against the Estrada nomination based on what is already known regarding the former solicitor general's right-wing positions on civil rights and corporate power issues. But Senate Minority Leader Tom Dacshle, D-South Dakota, said the primary focus of any filibuster would be to force the administration to release memoranda that the nominee wrote while he worked in the office of the solicitor general in the Justice Department.

"Until that information is provided, we will not be in a position to allow a vote to come to the Senate floor," Daschle told reporters after a mid-day meeting with Democratic senators at which a decision was made to try and block a vote on Estrada's nomination. "It is critical that the administration recognize the importance of this information and the importance of the constitutional obligation (to review judicial nominations) that we hold very seriously."

Daschle said that, after meeting with key senators, he is certain that Democrats have more than enough support to block a vote with a filibuster. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to cut off a filibuster -- where members who oppose a bill or nomination speak continually against it and employ other procedural moves in order to delay action -- and force a final vote.

No one knows how the filibuster threat will play out, especially with the Senate preparing for a recess next week. Some Senate Republicans threatened to keep the chamber in session until a final vote is taken.

"If they want to stay through the weekend, we'll stay through the weekend," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.

Republicans still hope to swing enough Democrats to their side to gain the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and force a vote.A few Democrats, including influential Louisiana Senator John Breaux, have indicated that they will side with Republicans and support Estrada. And Judiciary Committee chair Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has sought to pressure more Democrats to get in line behind a prominent Hispanic nominee. But those efforts were undermined when the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in urging rejection of Estrada's nomination.

Opposition to the nomination from leading civil rights groups -- especially those with large Latino constituencies -- is certainly influential with Democrats and some Republicans. Ultimately, however, the tipping point for Senate Democrats appears to have been Estrada's stonewalling at hearings before the Judiciary Committee and the White House's refusal to release the memoranda that effectively form the only official record of Estrada's views.

"By remaining silent Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far-right stealth nominee, a... candidate who will drive the nation's second most important court out of the mainstream."explained Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, a key Judiciary Committee member.

Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice (www.afj.org and www.independentjudiciary.com), a national coalition of more than 60 organizations that advocates for an independent judiciary, says the decision of most Democratic senators to work to block Estrada is a major breakthrough. But, she adds, "The administration is going to put a lot of pressure on swing Democrats to break with their leadership and support Estrada. Our job in the next few weeks is to tell the Democrats to hold firm, and to start putting pressure on moderate Republicans. This is a fight that I think we can win, but there is no question that the fight is a long way from finished."

Aussies Aboard? Not Exactly

In the White House's latest attempt to suggest that the United States has garnered significant international support for an at´tack on Iraq, President Bush met Monday with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, How´ard pledged unquestioning support for the US administration's position -- even as the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and other more skeptical lands continued their efforts to avert war.

Howard dutifully echoed Bush's recent "the-game-is-over" rhetoric: "For something serious to happen to turn around the direc´tion of this whole thing, there would have to be a total change of attitude by Iraq," the Australian declared. "It's not good enough to give a little bit. This has happened before. We're not going to play that game again."

White House stenographers, er, reporters scribbled notes on Howard's comments and proclaimed Australia to be fully in the US camp -- just like Estonia and Albania. What they failed to note is that Howard is not speaking for a united Australia. Like most of the countries that have announced official support for the US position on Iraq, Australia is deeply divided.

How deeply?

The latest national opinion poll shows that 76 percent of Australians oppose Australian participation in a US-led war on Iraq. And that sentiment was reflected in an unprece´dented move by the Australian Senate last week, which voted 33-31 to censure Howard for committing 2,000 soldiers -- 450 of whom are already on the ground in the Middle East -- to join US troops in a potential war against Iraq.

"The Senate declares that it has no confidence in the Prime Minister's handling of this grave matter for the nation," read the measure, which also registered the opposition of the upper chamber of the Australian government to an attack on Iraq led by the US, and which insisted that moves to disarm Iraq be carried out under UN authority.

"The result means that Mr Howard does not have the mandate of parliament to deploy troops in a war without United Nations backing," explained Senator John Faulkner, the leader of the opposition Labor Party.

"This is an historic vote by the Senate," added Green Party Senator Bob Brown, a prime mover behind the censure vote. "It's the first time in history, in 102 years, that this Senate has voted no confidence in the Prime Minister of the day. The Prime Minister made the decision to deploy 2,000 defence personnel with no reference to the parliament, without the backing of the Australian people, without a request from the United Nations. He stands condemned, censured and without the confidence of the house of review, the Senate in Australia."

Censure by the Australian Senate, just one of two legislative chambers in that country, is not sufficient to force Howard to change course. But the vote, and continued questioning of Howard's approach by opposition leaders in the other chamber, the Parliament, signal that Australia is far from united for war.

Just as the White House press corps continually fails to take note of the level of dissent in the US, it it now missing the story of serious opposition in countries that the Bush administration would have us believe are "on board" for war.

Dubious Dossier

Speaking to the United Nations on Wednesday, in an address that was broadly portrayed as a case for war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that, "Iraq today is actively using its considerable intelligence capabilities to hide its illicit activities." To support that claim, Powell said, "I would call my colleagues attention to the fine paper that United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities."

It turns out, however, that much of that "fine paper" – a dossier distributed by the office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair under the title, "Iraq - Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation" – was not a fresh accounting of information based on new "intelligence" about Iraqi attempts to thwart UN weapons inspections. Rather, the document has been exposed by Britain's ITN television network as a cut-and-paste collection of previously published academic articles, some of which were based on dated material.

Substantial portions of the report that Powell used to support his critique of Iraq were lifted from an article written by a postgraduate student who works not in Baghdad but in Monterey, California, and who based much of his research on materials left in Kuwait more than a dozen years ago by Iraqi security services.

ITN's Channel 4 News (http://www.channel4.com/news/) revealed Thursday night that at least four of the government report's 19 pages had been copied from an internet version of an article by the California researcher, Ibrahim al-Marashi, which appeared in September, 2002, in an academic journal, the Middle East Review of International Affairs. According to al-Marashi, he was not contacted by the British government regarding his research or his sources.

The portions of the government document taken from al-Marashi's article appear to have been grabbed in what Britain's Guardian newspaper describes in Friday morning's editions as "a sham" and "an electronic cut-and-paste operation by Whitehall (Blair government) officials." So sweeping was the plagiarism that, according to British journalists who reviewed the materials, typographical errors – including a misplaced comma -- that appeared in al-Marashi's article were reproduced in the official dossier that was posted on Blair's 10 Downing Street website.

To the extent that changes were made, they appear to have been inserted to increase the shock value of the information. Though he said that most of the information that was swiped from his article was reproduced accurately, al-Marashi told BBC's Newsnight program that the British dossier included "cosmetic changes." For instance, he noted, "I said that (Iraqi intelligence operatives) support organizations in what Iraq considers hostile regimes, whereas the UK document refers to it as 'supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes'."

In addition to the sections taken from al-Marashi's article, according to the Guardian, "The content of six more pages (of the dossier) relies heavily on articles by Sean Boyne and Ken Gause that appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review in 1997 and last November. None of these sources is acknowledged."

Blair aides scrambled on Thursday evening to cover their tracks. "We said that it draws on a number of sources, including intelligence. It speaks for itself," a Downing Street spokesperson said of the report. Appearing on the BBC last night, Blair said he still believes he is right to argue that Iraq poses a clear danger to the world. "I may be wrong, but I do believe it," the prime minister said at one point.

Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, suggested that a measure of skepticism might be appropriate. Rangwala discovered the similarities between the academic articles and the Downing Street dossier. That happened when he sat down to read the official dossier this week. "I found it quite startling when I realized that I'd read most of it before," he told a television interviewer.

"Apart from passing this off as the work of its intelligence services," Rangwala said, "it indicates that the UK really does not have any independent sources of information on Iraq's internal policies. It just draws upon publicly available data."

Poetic Protests Against War, Censorship

A bit of advice for the Bush White House: Don't pick fights with professional wordsmiths.

First Lady Laura Bush's decision to cancel a White House symposium on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes because she feared antiwar sentiments might be expressed has provoked a pummeling of the Administration by poets who would have been part of the February 12 "Poetry and the American Voice" session.

"The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does not wish to open its doors to an ‘American Voice' that does not echo the Administration's misguided policies," declared Rita Dove, the nation's poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. "I had no doubt in my mind that I couldn't go, if only because of the hideous use of language that emanates from this White House: The lying, the Orwellian euphemisms..." added Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, who said that he was sorry the first lady cancelled the symposium before he could refuse his invite.

Stanley Kunitz, the 2001 and 2002 poet laureate, observed that, "I think there was a general feeling that the current Administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse."

The poet who got off the best line may have been Sam Hamill, who noted that his name was on the invitation list despite his own history of antiwar activism. "I'm sure the person who put my name on the list is looking for a job," joked Hamill, whose request that writer friends send him antiwar poems for the symposium might have inspired the Administration's decision to cancel the event with a tart statement from Mrs. Bush's office that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." (Hamill's call has, so far, drawn more than 2,000 responses, including those of W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sent along a copy of, "Coda," a poem featuring the line: "And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center-Into the beginning of the Third World War.")

Actually, Mrs. Bush would have been lucky if her symposium had featured only contemporary criticism of US imperialism and conservative policies. A far greater danger for the Administration was the prospect that those attending the conference would have used the words of Dickinson, Hughes and Whitman against them.

Dickinson may not have been a radical, but nor was she enthusiastic about militarism. Benjamin Lasee, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Northeastern Illinois University, has written of how Dickinson counted the cost of war: "In one poem ('It feels a shame to be Alive'), she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and closes by asking why ‘such Enormous Pearl' as life should be dissolved 'In Battle's horrid Bowl.'"

Hughes (who would have turned 101 on Saturday, February 1) was a proud leftist whose poetry condemned US government hypocrisy at home and abroad. Reflecting on racism in the United States, Hughes wrote, "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes..." and argued: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above." And could there be a more damning reflection of the Bush's Administration's use of post-September 11 sentiment to pass the Patriot Act than Hughes' line: "O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath"?

Whitman, of course, would have been the most problematic poet for the Bushes. Openly gay and radical, he was no friend to politicians, complaining that offices such as the presidency were "bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes." And one can only imagine the reaction of this Administration's conservative thought police to Whitman's great mandate: "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."

Hamill, who plans to post the antiwar poems at www.PoetsAgainstTheWar.org, made a very good point when he said, "I saw profound irony in their choice of poets. These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House -- the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever read Whitman."

Bumbled Response

When Congressional Democrats asked Governor Gary Locke of Washington state to deliver the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, they ceded what could have been be their highest profile media moment of the year to someone who does not sit in the House or Senate. It was a mistake.

Locke is an able if not particularly exciting administrator, and he had some good things to say about the way that states -- and the people who live in them -- could be harmed by administration proposals to roll back environmental protections, skew tax cuts to benefit the richest Americans and privatize Medicare. But he danced around foreign policy questions, and he never landed a serious blow on Bush's domestic agenda.

If ever there was a moment when Democrats in Washington needed to ask someone who is in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill to describe their differences with the administration, it was following this year's State of the Union address. After the November, 2002, elections put conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and with the Bush administration now moving aggressively to launch a war with Iraq, advance an economically preposterous "stimulus" plan and nominate right-wing judicial activists for openings on every federal bench, Democrats in Congress could not afford to surrender the rebuttal spot that remains one of the few openings for a serious critique of the president's highest-profile annual address.

To be fair to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, they did organize a "prebuttal" press conference on Monday, where Pelosi did a decent job of arguing that the administration needs to broaden its definition of security to include economic security at home. Daschle showed some rhetorical flair when he announced that, "The state of our union today is anxious. The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking."

But, for the most part, Daschle still seemed to be having a hard time presenting a surer, clearer vision of the course Democrats would set. Neither Locke's rebuttal nor the Daschle-Pelosi "prebuttal" sounded like the sort of rip-roaring alternative that might energize opponents of the administration policies in Washington or beyond. For that, Americans needed to search out reports of Tuesday's Alternative State of the Union session in the Capitol, where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mounted a devastating assault on administration policies.

"We are holding an Alternative State of the Union address because we believe that Americans deserve a vision of a future of peace and justice rather than war and economic hardship and inequality," said California Democrat Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the 53-member caucus, as she opened the session. "At last year's State of the Union, President Bush gave us the axis of evil. Today, we face crises and possible war on multiple fronts. In fact, we face possible endless war because the doctrine of preemption knows no limits. It also brings us no security."

The Progressive Caucus' 15-page critique of the State of the Union as year three of the Bush presidency begins was delivered by Lee's co-chair, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. It argued that President Bush has "brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iraq, yet the Administration has not produced any compelling evidence linking Iraq to the attacks of 9-11, nor any evidence that Iraq poses a threat to the United States." It accused the White House of taking actions that had "squandered widespread international sympathy and support for the U.S. after the 9-11 attack," "assaulted basic civil liberties" and "(waged) class warfare against the majority of Americans, even as the nation sputters along the edge of a double dip recession." And it offered a dramatically different vision for where America should be headed, declaring:

"Today, Progressives in Congress offer an alternative that will create peace and prosperity for all Americans:

* Progressives believe that a war with Iraq is unjustified and the U.S. should halt the war preparations. Instead, the U.S. should strongly support the UN inspectors in Iraq.

* Progressives believe that the national economy is in serious trouble and needs a genuine stimulus. The stimulus must be large, it must jump-start the economy immediately, it must create new jobs, it must be fair; it must put money in the pockets of the majority of Americans, and it should target neglected areas of society, such as housing, schools, and water systems.

* Progressives believe all Americans deserve a guarantee of high quality, affordable, health care. With the failure of the private market to deliver health care to 41 million Americans and affordable pharmaceuticals to senior citizens, Medicare should be improved and expanded to give high quality health care to every American and a prescription drug benefit to seniors.

* Progressives believe that jobs should pay living wages, that people be more easily able to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers and that the federal government should guarantee Social Security with the "full faith and credit of the United States."

* Progressives in Congress believe that Americans should be assured of strong civil rights and liberties, including reproductive choice.

America, gather up your courage. We can make America a better place. The future can be better than the past. There is an alternative to the Bush Administration."

Progressive Caucus members, especially Kucinich, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, have been in the forefront of organizing Congressional opposition to Bush administration plans to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. But Caucus members focused at least as much on economic issues. And as they built the case against the administration, it was difficult not to wonder how much Tuesday's night's discourse might have been improved if a Congressional Progressive Caucus representative, say Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, had been asked to deliver the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union on primetime television.

Sanders could have echoed his comments of earlier Tuesday, in which he said, "Unemployment is going up and we have lost 2 million good paying manufacturing jobs in the last two years, including many in Vermont. Poverty is increasing and the number of Americans who lack health insurance or are underinsured is also soaring. Instead of cutting back on Medicare and veterans' needs, and giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, President Bush should be providing serious legislative proposals that will protect the needs of the middle class and working families of our country."

Just imagine how much more exciting it would have been if the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union address had featured Barbara Lee announcing, as she did Tuesday: "Here in the United States, we hold ourselves up as model for all countries and peoples who seek to be free. We are not living up to this model. But we can. We can pursue peace and justice and through them achieve security. We can regrow this economy and create jobs and opportunities. We can preserve important existing protections, from affirmative action to reproductive freedoms to the Clean Air Act. We can invest in education, healthcare, and home building. And, next year's State of the Union could then be a reflection of how far we have come and how much progress we have made. That is the America that the Progressive Caucus envisions, and that is the future we will help forge."

Syndicate content