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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Not Quite Harry Potter

Former President Bill Clinton can add another line to his résumé: bestselling author.

Clinton's autobiography, My Life, looks like it could achieve sales of 2 million. It had topped the amazon.com sales list even before its release. And by the time it was officially available, at midnight on Tuesday, crowds were lined up outside the bookstores that were smart enough to stay open. Some even had to put on extra help to handle the demand, providing evidence that, even as an ex-President, Clinton is still better at creating jobs than George W. Bush.

But what is the significance of this latest bout of Clintonmania?

Clintonites will, of course, embrace it with delight. This is the moment they have been waiting for--the return of the king, the renewal of the dream, the restoration of the legacy. They will hope that, as Clinton gets more and more exposure in the days and weeks ahead, voters will recall the period of relative peace and prosperity over which he presided. (The Clinton defenders should also hope that no one brings up the damage that Clinton's misguided trade policies did to American manufacturing.)

Clinton haters will groan from their sinecures as Fox News personalities and commentators. This is their worst nightmare--the overshadowing of Bush II by a dynamic Democrat, the contrasting of the competence that was with the bumbling that is, the reminding of the citizenry that Presidents actually can be articulate. They will hope that, as the media focuses excessive attention of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Americans will somehow be duped into believing that Clinton's lies about infidelity were somehow more troubling than Bush's lies about weapons of mass destruction and other so-called "justifications" for war with Iraq. (It is a vain hope. Americans are smart enough to figure out that, as the bumper sticker reads, "When Bush Lied, People Died.")

For most Americans, who fall somewhere between the Clinton lovers and haters, this Clinton moment will, like the period immediately following Ronald Reagan's death, be a time for casual nostalgia. They will remember why they twice chose Clinton to be their President, and why they probably would have re-elected him if they'd gotten the chance in 2000. That does not mean, however, that they will run out and buy the book--let alone read it.

While some commentators, spying the long lines at bookstores and imbibing liberally of the hype, have taken to referring to My Life as "the adult Harry Potter book of the summer," Clinton's sales will never rival those of the boy wizard.

The vast majority of Americans will learn about the contents of My Life not by reading a copy but by consuming some of the constant coverage provided by the media. Those who purchase the tome are likely to sample from the text rather than read all 957 pages. Some of the few who make it to the end will react as did New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who concluded that Clinton's book was "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull--the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history." Others will swear, as Clinton's defenders so frequently do, that they saw a glimpse of Camelot somewhere amid those many pages.

The fair analysis of Clinton's book lies somewhere in the middle. Presidential autobiographies generally fail to illuminate, and it appears that Clinton has maintained the tradition. There are few revelations in My Life. But, even if this book is not a page-turner, it does offer more useful insights into the first baby-boomer President's life and political legacy than even more self-serving memoirs did for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Clinton's recollections regarding the Middle East peace process are poignant; his comments on combating terrorism are more informative and instructive than the grumblings of President Bush or Vice President Cheney. And his complaints about the abuses of process and politics committed by not-so-special prosecutor Ken Starr and his minions merit repetition.

Ultimately, however, this latest Clinton moment will be just that: a moment. It is a summer break, nothing more. In a few weeks, the discussion of Clinton will fade. And Americans will focus again on the contest between Bush and Democrat John Kerry for the presidency. The suggestion that all this attention to Clinton will undermine Kerry is comic. Clinton is a more impressive figure than Bush, that's true. But so is Kerry. And a few weeks of focus on Clinton will, when all is said and done, serve as a welcome reminder that in the none too distant past the United States had a President who was competent, articulate and at least reasonably concerned about promoting international cooperation. It is difficult to imagine how that recollection will benefit George W. Bush's re-election prospects.

Granny D Wants to be Senator D

If the voters of New Hampshire approve, "Granny D" would like very much to become "Senator D."

The 94-year-old activist, who won national attention and acclaim from the likes of US Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold when she walked 3,200 miles across the United States to promote campaign finance reform in 1999 and 2000, is preparing to take another unprecedented journey--on the campaign trail.

Doris "Granny D" Haddock will formally announce Thursday that she is challenging Republican US Senator Judd Gregg, who is seeking a third term representing New Hampshire. And her "down home" campaign could well turn out to be one of the most provocative and inspired candidacies this country has seen in years. She is already assured of the Democratic nomination, and calls are coming in from young activists who want to trek to New Hampshire to help the nation's oldest political newcomer.

"We're moving things around in the house to make it a headquarters," Granny D. said from her Dublin, New Hampshire, home. "And we're setting things up in the yard so that the young people who want to work on the campaign can pitch tents."

Needless to say, Granny D.'s candidacy will not resemble the cookie-cutter campaigns run by most senatorial contenders. While senate candidates usually spend years preparing to make their races, Granny D. decided to run only last week, after the expected Democratic candidate against Gregg, state Senator Burt Cohen, folded his campaign. Cohen has been mounting a feisty, if uphill, challenge to Gregg, but his prospects were doomed when reports began to surface that his campaign manager had gone missing, along with what was left of his campaign fund. There was no suggestion that Cohen had done anything wrong, but the controversy promised to make a continued candidacy impossible. So Cohen called fellow Democrats last Thursday and said he was dropping out.

With less than twenty-four hours to go before the filing deadline to fill the party's line on the ballot, New Hampshire Democrats were scrambling. They needed a new candidate against Gregg. That's when Granny D., who was born in 1910 in the New Hampshire community of Laconia, stepped in. So far, she's gotten enthusiastic support from top Democrats like state party chair Kathy Sullivan, who says, "I think she has the capacity to bring people into the election who otherwise feel disenfranchised."

Granny D's candidacy could be a significant factor in presidential politics this fall. New Hampshire is a swing state, which George W. Bush won by only 7,200 votes in 2000. Granny D's appeal to reformers, women who see the outspoken activist as a role model and young people who distrust conventional politicians could well bring out voters who might otherwise have stayed home. And Democrats expect such voters would back John Kerry's challenge to Bush.

But Granny D. is not just running to bump up turnout.

"I intend to win," she says. "I want to go to the Senate and serve only one term. In that term, I will use all of my energy, and I have a lot of energy left, to get us back our democracy. I will work for public financing of federal campaigns. I will work to get the Senate back to serving the public interest, not the interests of the big campaign contributors. Maybe they will listen to a great grandmother when I tell them that we have to clean things up."

She'll continue her criticism of the war in Iraq. "I think it was an unnecessary war. Mr. Bush got a little excited about using his new weapons and thought, 'Oh, boy, let's have a war,'" she says. "He have done so much damage with his policy of 'revenge, revenge.' I want to talk about taking the steps that will again have America seen as a friend to the rest of the world, not a fiend, not an enemy, not a target."

Granny D. would, of course, bring a uniquely experienced voice to debates about Social Security and Medicare. But she says her special focus as a senator would be on issues of concern to Americans on the other end of the age spectrum. Quoting Jonathan Kozol's writings, she says, "I have trouble going to sleep at night thinking that one in five American children don't have enough to eat. A senator should be able to do something about that, and I would."

All of this talk of what she would do as a senator might seem a bit premature. After all, Gregg, a former governor and one of the best-known political figures in the state has raised millions for his re-election campaign, while Granny D. is starting from scratch. But the woman who is credited with helping to force Congress to get serious about the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill is undaunted. She expects she'll be able to raise enough "clean money" to run a real campaign. And she is excited about the prospect of debating Gregg, a 57-year-old conservative whose closeness to the Bush family may not be an advantage this year.

Will age be an issue?

"What?" asks Granny D., with a laugh. "Do you think anyone would actually say I was too old? That's crazy."

Another Mourning in America

SAN FRANCISCO -- Watching the All-Reagan-All-the-Time television coverage last week might have created the impression that everyone in California was overwhelmed by sorrow over the death of the man who served two terms as the Golden State's governor before becoming the nation's fortieth President. But that was not exactly the case.

To be sure, there was mourning and, while much of it was carefully orchestrated by the Reagan family and their retainers, much of it was also sincere. But, for the most part, Californians did not seem to bemoan Ronald Reagan's passing with any more frenzy or fervor than did other Americans. And in some parts of the state, notably the Bay Area, a lot of people were looking back in anger.

Reagan was never so supremely popular in California as the revisionist histories would have him be. Elected governor in 1966 with 56.6 percent of the vote, Reagan was re-elected in 1970 with just 52.8 percent. The next time he faced the state's voters in a general election, as the Republican nominee for President in 1980, he fell to 52.7 percent. But, at least that year, he ran two percentage points better in California than he did nationally. By 1984, the last time California voters would have an opportunity to officially assess the man who was so closely associated with their state, Reagan ran a full percentage point behind his national showing--and in San Francisco, a remarkable 67.4 percent of voters cast their ballots for Reagan's Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.

From 1985 on, Reagan consistently had a lower presidential job approval rating in California than he did nationally. Indeed, in the last full year of Reagan's presidency, while he maintained better than 50 percent approval ratings nationally, he fell to the mid-forties in California.

In San Francisco, where Reagan lost election after election, the city's Chronicle newspaper noted after the 40th president's death that, "San Francisco's relationship with Reagan has always been unhappy and uneven."

That was true even on Friday, as the television networks provided breathless coverage of the former President's funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington and the internment ceremony at Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley. In one San Francisco neighborhood that a Chronicle writer visited Friday, the newspaper reported, "none of the television sets in bars, barbershops, or appliance stores was turned to the Reagan funeral coverage. In the neighborhood, which has a large gay and lesbian population, the paper also pointed out that "none of the ubiquitous rainbow flags that whipped in the wind Friday afternoon was lowered to half-staff."

In a city that, perhaps more than any other, felt the devastating impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there is still a great deal of anger over Reagan's neglect during his presidency of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the death toll associated with it. On the day of Reagan's funeral, roughly a dozen candles burned in the windows of the city's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center. A sign urged people to remember those who have died as a result of the AIDS pandemic and, noting Reagan's refusal to take the AIDS threat seriously, suggested that it was important to recognize, "His failure, their deaths, our mourning."

Thom Lynch, an activist on AIDS issues, echoed the complaints of many San Franciscans regarding the unrealistically generous interpretations of Reagan's legacy that dominated media coverage of Reagan's death. "The media has gone, in my mind, over the top," Lynch said. "People are willing to give a former President his due, with all the ceremony, but there was a lack of context about his presidency."

What might the proper perspective be? Start, many San Franciscans would suggest, by recognizing that, when it came to the AIDS crisis, Reagan's failure to act was devastating. While activists begged the White House to take the disease seriously, Reagan and his aides refused to address the crisis. That failure, AIDS researchers say, prevented the country from mounting the sort of response that could have saved thousands of lives.

"His silence was deafening," Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who served as director of the San Francisco Department of Health when AIDS was first declared an epidemic in the early 1980s, said in an interview last week. Reagan) "is portrayed as a compassionate and caring individual who brought people out of the doldrums, but his silence on AIDS was tragic."

Reagan's Politics of Passion

Rest assured that the radical reworking of history that America witnessed in the hours after Ronald Reagan died Saturday at age 93 will be temporary. While the over-the-top media coverage and official commentary regarding the fortieth President's passing has made him out to be such a noble figure that otherwise rational people have been heard to suggest that Reagan was the greatest President of the twentieth century, it will not take long for a balancing to begin. In short order, the assessments of Reagan the man, and of his tenure in the Oval Office, will be tempered.

Then, conservatives and liberals will be free to consider ths ideologically-driven--and misguided--President's record with eyes wide open.

For now, however, realism is in short supply--much to the detriment of not just of the historical record but of Reagan's memory.

All of a sudden, the man who redirected tens of billions of dollars away from domestic needs to build up the largest nuclear arsenel on the planet, ran up record deficits, saw members of his Administration investigated and indicted at a staggering rate and, himself, came close to being impeached for allowing aides to create a shadow government that peddled weapons to sworn enemies of the United States and used the profits to fund illegal wars in Central America was remade as a statesman who restored dignity and direction to his country.

While no one should begrudge Reagan's admirers this opportunity to replay those "morning in America" commercials that were deployed with such success during the last of their man's fourth runs for the presidency, it is a bit embarrassing to watch pundits and pols who know better embracing the spin.

The problem with all this hero worship is that the spin underestimates and mischaracterizes Reagan. It reduces a complex and controversial man to a blurry icon with few of the rough edges that made him one of the most remarkable political figures of his time.

That he was remarkable does not mean that he was right. Most of what Reagan did during two terms as governor of California and two terms as President can most charitably be described as "misguided." Aside from his support for abortion rights during his governorship, and his opposition to anti-gay initiatives in California during the late 1970s, Reagan displayed an amazing ability to place himself on the wrong side of the issues--and of history.

Yet, there is something that liberals can--and should--learn from Reagan.

Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling--as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale's ideas were significantly more popular--they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, "Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands." And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.

Reagan connected as a conservative by displaying an optimism about his ideology and its potential that most right-leaning politicians before him had lacked. And that optimism transformed the conservative movement from a petty circle of grumbling cynics who believed that every glass was half empty--and probably poisoned--into energetic and, dare it be said, happy warriors on behalf of tax cuts, ever-more-expensive weapons systems, corporate welfare, privatization, deregulation and the blurring of lines between church and state.

In the years after Republican right-winger Barry Goldwater's landslide loss of the 1964 presidential election, many conservatives had doubts about whether they would ever be able to peddle their programs successfully. But Reagan did not doubt. He believed. And his faith was infectious. It helped him beat a liberal Democratic governor of California in 1966 and a moderate Democratic President in 1980. And it permitted a new generation of conservatives to feel they were part of a movement with not just principles but with a future.

As that movement grasped its future, during Reagan's presidency and in its aftermath, liberals--particularly those working within the constraints of the Democratic Party--began to be the ones who entertained doubts. Many Democrats gave up altogether on the liberal values that had carried that party to its greatest successes, and moved to the right. It was a tragic error, for which the Democratic party continues to pay.

The lesson to be learned from Reagan is not an ideological one. His ideology was wrong for America and wrong for the world--something even Reagan sometimes recognized, as when he backed away from the most extreme tenets of the conservative agenda to, for instance, defend Social Security, and when he finally agreed, at the behest of Margaret Thatcher, to negotiate with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Rather, the lesson to be learned from Reagan is a stylistic one. He loved preaching his conservative doctrines. And he loved battling with liberals at the ballot box, at the debate podium and in the Capitol. He was a conservative first, a Republican second. He showed no respect for party decorum, challenging a sitting Republican President--Gerald Ford--who he felt was too moderate. And he was willing to lose on principle, whether in that 1976 nomination fight with Ford or, during his presidential terms, in fights with Congress over tax policy, foreign affairs or nominations to the US Supreme Court.

Just imagine if Bill Clinton had been as committed to advancing an activist liberal ideology as Reagan was to his conservative agenda. America might have a national health care plan today. Labor law reform could have been a reality, rather than an empty promise. The United States would certainly have a more progressive judiciary. And here's another notion: If Clinton or Al Gore had put as much energy and enthusiasm into educating Americans about and promoting a liberal agenda as Reagan did for his conservative ideals, the United States would today have a different Congress and President.

This willingness to fight so fearlessly and forcefully for his political faith is what made the fortieth President remarkable. It is what inspired conservatives. And it is the one thing that liberals would do well to learn from Ronald Reagan.

Soros on America's Future

Looking down the list of speakers scheduled to address the Campaign for America's Future's well-attended and well-spoken "Take Back America" conference this week, it was easy to surmise that the most newsworthy remarks would be those of US Sen. Hillary Clinton, US Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Rev. Jesse Jackson or, perhaps, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who was honored for his crusading against Wall Street's excesses and abuses.

Edwards skipped the event, costing himself an opportunity to appear before one of the most energized and engaged progressive audiences that will gather this year--and begging questions about whether he really is ready for the primetime of a vice-presidential nomination. Dean, on the other hand, was front and center, noting the resignation of CIA director Gene Tenet with the fiery declaration that, "It's about time somebody in this Administration resigned over all the misdeeds that have gone on..." Other speakers were equally fierce in their denunciations of the Bush White House, especially NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who told the crowd, "We have a President who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged. We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism."

But the most memorable address was a thoughtful and provocative commentary on foreign affairs by an unlikely populist: billionaire George Soros. Identifying himself as someone who had "never been very active in electoral politics," Soros told the crowd of more than 2,000 progressive activists who had come to Washington from across the country that he felt compelled to involve himself deeply in the 2004 presidential election fight because "I don't think this is a normal election."

"This is a referendum on the Bush Administration's policies, the Bush doctrine and its application--its first application, which was the invasion of Iraq," Soros explained. To the cheers of the crowd, the man who has donated an estimated $15.5 million to groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org that are seeking to oust the Republican President described the Bush doctrine as "an atrocious proposition."

"It's built on two pillars," he said. "One, that the United States must maintain its absolute military superiority in every part of the world; and second, that the United States has the right for preemptive action."

Designed to allow the United States to operate on the world stage without international constraints, Soros said, the Bush doctrine has created a circumstance straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, where "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In such a circumstance, the Hungarian-born financier said, the rest of the world looks at the United States with a mixture of concern, fear and anger.

That, he explained, is why the 2004 presidential election matters so very much.

"If we endorse the [Bush] doctrine, then we have to take the consequences: the mistrust and rage that is directed at the US today," Soros said. "If we reject it, then the blame belongs where it really should be: namely, in the policies of the Bush Administration. And we have to show that America doesn't stand for those policies."

Soros spoke eloquently to a reality that has yet to be fully impressed on the American people by John Kerry or the Democratic Party. The rest of the world is watching this year's presidential election closely. There is broad acceptence in other countries that Bush assumed the presidency under dubious premises--or, more precisely, as Soros put it, that "he was elected by one vote in the Supreme Court" rather than by a popular mandate. Thus, the 2004 election offers the American people a chance to signal to the rest of the planet that they do not share their President's worldview.

That worldview is shaped by Vice President Dick Cheney, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and a small circle of men and women who, Soros noted, are "usually described as neoconservatives." He suggested another name: "American supremacists"--who believe that "the United States is the most powerful and therefore it must use that power to impose itself on the world."

That imposition, Soros argued in the most controversial and compelling section of his address, has come at great cost to other countries and other peoples. But it may be costing the United States and the American people even more.

"I think that the picture of torture in...Abu Ghraib, in Saddam's prison, was the moment of truth for us, because this is not what this nation stands for," Soros said, to loud applause from the crowd. "I think that those pictures hit us the same way as the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attack itself--not quite with the same force because [in] the terrorist attack, we were the victims. In the pictures, we were the perpetrators; the others were the victims. But there is, I'm afraid, a direct connection between those two events, because the way that we, President Bush, conducted the war on terror, converted us from victims into perpetrators. This is a very tough thing to say, but the fact is that the war on terror as conducted by this Administration has claimed more innocent victims than the original attack itself."

Those words, fact-based as they may be, brought harsh condemnations from the usual crowd of Bush-can-do-no-wrongers. Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who has made no secret of his determination to slander any critic of the President as hater of America, was the first out of the gate.

"For Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous," grumbled Gillespie. "Their hatred of the President is fueling a blame America first mentality that is troubling."

Gillespie was, of course, wrong. Soros went out of his way to note the differences between American values and ideals and the Bush doctrine. But, of course, such subtleties are lost on political cheapshot artists.

In fact, Soros's speech was a deeply patriotic statement, grounded in the high regard of an immigrant for his adopted land. As a man of the world, Soros spoke with sorrow about "the damage that [the Bush doctrine and its application in Iraq] has done to our standing in the world."

"We need an alternative vision," he exclaimed. "We need an alternate vision to reestablish our position in the world."

Speaking of his faith that the American people will reject Bush, and his doctrine, this November, Soros said, "We mustn't turn away from the world because we are increasingly dependent and what happens, what kind of regime prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq, does have a great bearing on our security and on our properity, so we must develop ways of intervening when there is an oppressive regime or a rogue state. But...we cannot do it alone. We must do it in cooperation with others."

Herseth Win Matters (A Lot)

Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don't matter. That's what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday's pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.

They are, of course, wrong.

Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts--even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon's collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.

Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party's top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had "the dry heaves for three days" after the loss.

Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?

Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.

But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.

But while Democrats were celebrating Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it is important to remember that the South Dakota result is not a guarantee of Democratic destiny. It is merely a indication of what might come to pass if Democrats get their act together this fall.

For Democrats and Republicans, however, such signals matter.

During the contest that preceded Herseth's election by a 51-49 margin over Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday's statewide voting, the Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees poured more that $2 million into television advertising that targeted fewer than 300,000 South Dakota voters. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush swept into the Plains state to campaign for Diedrich. And, after Herseth won, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring early Wednesday morning that "Stephanie Herseth's win to tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change."

Allowing for predictable hyperbole, Pelosi is hitting closer to the mark than the Republicans who claim this one election has no meaning. The Democrats do, indeed, seem to be on something of a roll in special elections for the House this year.

Between 1991 and 2003, Democrats failed to win a single special election for a House seat vacated by a Republican.

In 2004, Democrats have won two such seats: First in the rural 6th District of Kentucky, where former state Attorney General Ben Chandler secured a lopsided special election victory in February, and now in South Dakota with Herseth.

For all the protests from Republicans about how the South Dakota race was unique, it is difficult to imagine that if President Bush were riding high in the polls and public confidence in the stewardship of Republican House and Senate leaders were equally high Herseth could have prevailed. South Dakota knows how to vote for Democrats--the state sends two Democratic senators to Washington--but the House seat Herseth won had been safely in Republican hands for years. Republican Rep. John Thune regularly won the seat with as much as 75 percent of the vote until he gave it up in 2002. Former Governor Bill Janklow then won the seat with a solid margin over Herseth. (Janklow's involvement in a deadly driving accident cut his Congressional career short, provoking the special election.)

To get a sense of how much of a breakthrough Herseth's win represents for South Dakota Democrats, remember this: The party now controls the state's entire Congressional delegation for the first time since 1937, when the popular programs of Frankin Roosevelt's New Deal helped Democrats to break the historic Republican hold on the rural states of the upper Midwest.

It has been a very long time since Democrats were on the rise in rural America, in large part because the party has abandoned the economic populist, pro-small farmer themes that were traditionally its greatest strength.

Herseth's homey campaign embraced populist economic messages about the need to protect family farms and revitalize rural America. After she lost the 2002 race, Herseth went to work with the South Dakota Farmers Union, the local affiliate of the progressive National Farmers Union, and her campaign this year reflected an understanding of the issues that most concern rural America. She criticized free-trade agreements that have harmed the interests of farmers and rural communities and she strongly supported Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation that protects the interests of US farmers. In addition, Herseth attacked the Bush Administration's assaults on Medicare and the President's promotion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations that ship jobs overseas.

Is there a recipe here for Democrats as they seek to win the dozen seats they need to retake control of the House? Perhaps.

Referring to those 2000 presidential election maps that showed states won by George Bush colored red, Representative Bob Matsui, the Californian who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now says that, "Democrats can win in red states. Democrats can win in rural districts that have traditionally been in the hands of Republicans."

Matsui is getting to the point that matters. With Bush in trouble, his coattails are going to be far more slippery than they were in 2000 and 2002, even in states where he is still likely to beat Democrat John Kerry. That creates an opening for Democrats in rural areas that the party has neglected over the past decade. But it is just an opening; after years of focusing far too much attention on suburban districts, the Democratic party has lost touch with rural America. Candidates such as Herseth and Chandler, both of whom come from prominent Democratic families with deep roots in their states, can make up for the party's failings. But not every rural district will have a Herseth or a Chandler in the running. That means that the Democratic Party must change if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that the 2004 election season seems to have handed it.

Democrats need to develop a serious rural strategy, which echoes National Farmers Union stances on trade and farm policy and promises a measure of revitalization for regions that have been in decline sometimes for decades. If they do so, they could find that the dozen seats they need to retake the House are not located in the suburbs but in rural America.

Bishops vs. Kerry

Though it does not dominate the front pages in the same way that arguments about Vietnam medals and current war catastrophes have, one of the more bitter debates that has developed during the current presidential campaign involves the question of whether Catholics should vote for John Kerry, a Catholic, for president. The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, recently issued a pastoral letter arguing that Catholics ought not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage.

Kerry does support abortion rights and stem-cell research. He's not for same-sex marriage, but he's otherwise supportive of gay rights initiatives. So, in Bishop Sheridan's view, voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee would, at best, be wrong, and, at worst, downright sinful. And Sheridan is not alone in griping about Kerry's pro-choice stance; a number of bishops have threatened to deny communion to Kerry and other Catholic politicians who fail to follow church teachings on abortion and other hot-button social issues.

But what about politicians, like President Bush, who violate church teachings with regards to launching preemptive wars and imposing the death penalty? Should conservative Catholic politicians who back the president and his war be denied the Eucharist? Should their supporters sanctioned?

That's the critical question for the bishops who are going after Kerry, Wisconsin Representative David Obey and other politicians who have not always followed church teachings on social issues but who hold views that are closer to those of the Vatican on economic issues, the death penalty and matters of war and peace.

Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and author who is one of America's most prominent Catholic thinkers, raised the question well when he noted recently that, "(The) Pope and the national (Catholic) hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?"

Don't get Greeley wrong. He's opposes abortion, and that puts him at odds with Kerry.

But, as Greeley notes, abortion and gay rights are not the only issues this fall. And, on some key issues, Catholics like Greeley find themselves close to Kerry, a death penalty critic who, though he is hardly anti-war, has challenged the Bush administration's management of the current fight.

"I subscribe to the consistent ethic of life that the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin enunciated some years ago," explains Greeley. "I believe abortion is wrong. I believe the death penalty is wrong. I believe preemptive war is wrong. I will take seriously the 'pro-life' enthusiasts when they are ready to protest against and denounce the death penalty. I will take them seriously when they also denounce criminally unjust wars."

Greeley gets to the heart of the matter when he suggests that, by focusing so much criticism on the pro-choice stances of Kerry and other politicians and failing to address so many other issues, church leaders such as Bishop Sheridan run the risk of appearing to be "doing the Republican National Committee's work for it."

Big Worries About John Kerry

LOS ANGELES -- John Kerry is going to have to decide who he wants to be when he grows up politically. His post-primary campaign has been so dramatically unfocused and ineffectual that -- even as George Bush has taken more serious blows to his credibility than any sitting president since Richard Nixon in the first years of his second term -- Kerry has not been able to open up a lead nationally or in the essential battleground states.

Kerry is making moves to muscle up his Democratic presidential candidacy, with a $25-million let's-make-some-introductions advertising campaign, an effort to sharpen his message and a sped-up vice presidential search. The next month will be critical. If he can open a five- to eight-point lead nationally and establish leads that mirror those of Al Gore's 2000 wins in Democratic-leaning battleground states, his campaign will be sufficiently renewed to make the race. If, on the other hand, he continues to hold even nationally and trail behind Gore's showings in the states that will tip the balance in the Electoral College, there will come a round of questioning -- prior to the Democratic National Convention in July -- about whether the party is making the right choice.

Kerry will still be the nominee. Modern political parties lack the flexibility to clean up messes, no matter how obvious the need. The was proven in 1996, when the Republican National Convention dutifully nominated Bob Dole, despite the fact that no honest observer thought he had a chance of winning.

Will Kerry be the Dole of 2004? That's the question that the Massachusetts senator needs to sort out this month.

The decisions Kerry makes now will determine whether his campaign is for real. And the pressure for some kind of signal is only going to increase as the month passes.

In southern California this week to contribute to Robert Greenwald's upcoming documentary on media issues, I had a chance to talk with political activists, journalists and entertainment-industry insiders. They were all for getting rid of George Bush. But they were also, to a one, convinced that Kerry's campaign wasn't doing what was necessary to accomplish that task. They still thought Kerry would carry California -- a must-win state for the Democrats -- but they were worried that he was slipping even there. And they were convinced that his failure to come on strong was eliminating enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Writer and activist Arianna Huffington, who has written a good new book about the Bush crowd, Fanatics and Fools, was particularly concerned. A none-of-the-above voter in 2000, she's determined to achieve regime change in the White House this year and she recognizes that Kerry offers the only realistic hope for sending Bush back to Texas. But she is so worried about Kerry's cautious campaigning that she has penned a letter to the candidate, which she hopes hundreds of thousands of activists will sign. The letter urges the presumptive Democratic nominee to, "Offer voters a bold moral vision of what America can be. A vision that is bigger than the things that divide us. A vision that brings hope and soul back to our politics and appeals to more than voters' narrow self-interests. A vision that makes America once again a respected force for good in the world.

(You can learn more about Huffington's recent projects by visiting her www.fanaticsandfools.org website.)

I don't know whether a letter will get John Kerry's attention, let alone whether it will get him to recognize that his campaign really is in trouble. But I do know that it is right to target messages toward Kerry, himself.

Again and again, people asked me: Who is advising Kerry? The answer is that the names don't really matter.

Like any soon-to-be-nominated presidential candidate, Kerry is getting advice from every corner. The noxious Democratic Leadership Council, which every election season commands Democrats to run as Republican-lite centrists, is indeed bending his ear. But Kerry is getting advice from credible and competent sources, as well.

The problem is that the senator seems to be having a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to messaging.And, unfortunately, this is a challenge that only he is in a position to resolve.

No one else but the candidate can cure what ails this presidential campaign. That's because only the candidate can send the a broad and meaningful message that says his campaign really does promise fundamental change. Kerry cannot count on the "Beat Bush" message to carry him to victory in November. Nor should he assume that just promising to be kinder and gentler than Bush will be enough.

John Kerry needs to present himself as the candidate who offers America a clean break from Bushism.

If he does so, he will win.

If he fails to do so, he will be this year's Bob Dole -- without the sense of humor.

No Record, No Accountability

In another illustration of the current administration's commitment to keeping the American people in the loop, the White House demanded that there be no recording or formal transcription of today's joint interview of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by the 9/11 commission.

The members of the independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have accepted this ridiculous pretense because they know it is the only way to get the president and the vice president to aid efforts to understand and combat the threat of terrorism.

The lack of a recording or an official transcript will, legal scholars suggest, afford Bush and Cheney an opportunity to deny statements, question interpretations and challenge conclusions. "It gives them more maneuverability in case someone slips up or says something he regrets," explains New York University law Professor Stephen Gillers.

In other words, in the unlikely event that Bush or Cheney might let a snippet of truth slip out, the elaborate White House spin machine will be able to take advantage of the deliberately vague record to "clarify" the statement.

The absence of a taped record also allows the administration to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain why, when the commander-in-chief is asked questions, the vice president answers.

The reason for the tandem testimony by Bush and Cheney is, of course, all too obvious. Were the pair to testify apart from one another, their stories might well be different, as there is some doubt about the extent to which Bush was kept in the loop.

Despite the fact that the tandem testimony is necessary in order for Bush and Cheney to keep their stories straight, it is still awfully embarrassing. Does anyone really believe that the rest of the world has failed to notice that, when the leader of the most powerful country on the planet is asked to address paramount issues of national security, he must be accompanied by a minder?

The absurdity of the president and vice president demanding that there be no official record of their meeting with the commission would be the subject of a congressional outcry and a constant media battering of the administration if Bush and Cheney were members of another political party. Just imagine if Bill Clinton had asked that there be no official record of obviously troubling and politically damaging statements he made during the interviews and inquisitions of the Republican-sponsored "sexgate" investigations of the late 1990s. The screams of outrage would still be echoing today.

Of course, the issues being explored by the 9/11 commission are far more serious matters than those involved in the Clinton investigations, which argues even more strongly for a permanent and precise record of what is said.

But Bush and Cheney will get their pass from the commission, the Congress and a cheerleading media. The willingness of major media to go along with the charade is particularly galling, but not surprising in an era when the White House press corps tends to ask probing questions along the lines of "how high?" in response to presidential press secretary Scott McClellan's regular requests that they jump to the right.

As has so often been the case during this dark passage in the American journey, citizens seeking after an accurate report on the affairs of state will need to turn to "America's finest news source": The Onion.

The Onion's front page this week features a photo of Bush speaking as Cheney sips from a glass. The headline: "Cheney wows Sept. 11 commission by drinking glass of water while Bush speaks."

Holtzman to Bush: Testify!

History usually provides a roadmap for the present. Unfortunately, leaders fail to consult the map.That's certainly been the case as the 9/11 Commission has prepared to hear behind-closed-doors testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush at the same time.

Members of the commission and, for the most part, members of congress, have accepted the secret-testimony arrangement. But why?

Presidents have testified before investigatory committees before. And they have done so on comparable issues. Former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us that in 1974, amid the national firestorm that followed President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon, Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee that was reviewing the pardon.

"The President came before the subcommittee, made an opening statement and was questioned by the House members. Although each of us had only five minutes, I was able to ask the President directly whether there had been a deal with Nixon about the pardon. The public could determine by Ford's demeanor and his words whether to believe his emphatic denial of any deal," recalls Holtzman, who as a young member of the House was a key player in the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the Watergate scandal.

"The fact that important questions could be posed directly to the President and the fact that the President was willing to face down his severest critics in public were healthy things for our country. And, not even the staunchest Republicans complained that the presidency was being demeaned."

By recalling the history, Holtzman reminds us that President Bush could, and should, simply appear before the 9/11 Commission. There is no Constitutional crisis here. There is no dangerous precedent that could be established. And there is no question of proportionality--certainly, the intensity of the demands for an explanation of the Nixon pardon can appropriately compared with those for an explanation of how the current administration responded to terrorist threats before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. "As with the Nixon pardon, the events of 9/11 have caused huge national concern," explains Holtzman. "The victims' families--as well as millions of others--have asked why it happened and what if anything could have been done to avert the tragedy. These are simple, reasonable questions."

The best response to those simple, reasonable questions, Holtzman argues, would be for Bush to volunteer to testify in public and under oath to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.

"Bush would be wise to take a page out of Ford's book. Americans could then decide themselves whether to agree or disagree with Bush's pre-9/11 conduct. They want to trust their President. They want to know that he acted with the best of motives, that he used good judgment and that he is a leader--in other words, that as chief executive, he knows when and how to mobilize the government to take action," Holtzman asserted, in an opinion piece she wrote this week for the New York Daily News.

"If Bush refuses to answer reasonable questions in public, the indelible impression is left that he has something to hide. That impression is reinforced by the White House's insistence that Vice President Cheney sit with Bush at the hearing. The President cannot afford to convey the image that he is afraid to appear on his own. And neither the 9/11 Commission nor the public should permit a behind-closed-door session for anything except national security information. The same principle should have applied to the testimony of former President Bill Clinton. "

Holtzman's wise comments beg one question: Why didn't anyone think to put this former member of Congress and native New Yorker on the 9/11 commission? There are a number of commissioners who share her experience--including, of course, Richard Ben-Veniste, who headed US Justice Department's Watergate Task Force from1973 to 1975. But it would seem that the commission could use someone who recognizes, as Holtzman does, that: "There is no better crucible than a public hearing to help ensure that the truth will come out."

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