Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

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

George W. Lieberman

If there was one thing that rational political observers agreed upon after last November's Democratic debacle, it was that Democrats need to do a much better job of distinguishing themselves from the Republicans.

That recognition should dim the prospects of Joe Lieberman as a serious presidential prospect in 2004. After all, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, Lieberman is famous for taking conservative stands that "rankle (the) liberal Democrats who comprise the core of the party."

Yet, with his Monday declaration, Lieberman is officially in the running. And by many estimations -- especially those of conservative commentators for whom Lieberman has long been the Democrat of choice -- he is a leading contender for his party's nomination.

Lieberman's position at or near the head of the pack of Democratic contenders has more to do with the fact that he was the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee than with enthusiasm among Democrats for his positions. That's because, while he seeks to be the party's standard-bearer in the 2004 contest, he has been a frequent and enthusiastic ally of the Bush administration on many of the most critical issues of the past two years.

Lieberman says he wants to campaign as "a different kind of Democrat." That he certainly is.

While the majority of Congressional Democrats have expressed clear reservations about the Bush administration's rush to launch a war with Iraq, for instance, Lieberman has been cheerleader-in-chief for the Bush line.

Even before the president began pressing for war with Iraq, Lieberman was beating the battle drums for "regime change." One of the leading Senate backers of the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution -- which was supported by only 10 of 55 Democrats in the Senate at the time -- he remains a far more outspoken advocate for a new war with Iraq than many Republicans. Lieberman co-sponsored the Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Indeed, at the Stamford, Connecticut, press conference where he announced his candidacy Monday, Lieberman declared, "I'm grateful that President Bush has focused on Iraq."

Lieberman went on to criticize Bush for being too soft on North Korea, criticizing the administration for "taking the military option off the table" with regard to the regime in Pyongyang.

In addition to promoting a Republican-lite line regarding foreign policy, Lieberman frequently echoes the GOP line on domestic social and economic issues. To a greater extent than any other Democrat seeking the 2004 nomination at this point, Lieberman has found himself in coalition with the religious right. Lieberman has made common cause with former Vice President Dan Quayle, the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others who condemn the entertainment industry for promoting what the senator calls "amoral" programming.

Lieberman has been the Bush administration's most prominent Democratic ally in efforts to develop voucher programs to divert public funds to private schools. He's also a leading supporter of proposals to allow moments of silence in public school classrooms, when Lieberman acknowledges that students could engage in prayer. During the 2000 campaign, it was not Bush, the born-again Christian Republican, but Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish Democrat, who said of Americans: "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

Lieberman is not so rigid a conservative as some of his Republican allies in debates over vouchers, school prayer and forcing standards on the entertainment industry - like many New England Republicans, for instance, he supports reproductive and gay rights. He has a far better record on race-related issues than southern Republicans such as former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. And he is generally more easygoing than his Republican counterparts in the Congress. But Lieberman's much-reported public moralizing led Rabbi Michael Lerner to comment that, "Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy."

There is no question that Lieberman's greatest area of common cause with conservative Republicans has been on issues of concern to corporations. That was obvious during the 107th Congress when, as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and one of the most prominent Democrats in the Senate, he failed to push for the sort of aggressive, no-stones-unturned investigations of corporate ethics and responsibility that the Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing scandals demanded.

Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's agenda was on display during 2002's extended debate over whether Congress should hand the Bush Administration Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bitterly opposed by organized labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups, the Fast Track proposal was the top priority of corporate interests during the 107th Congress.

That was hardly the only example of Lieberman siding with corporate interests in opposition to labor and environmental groups on trade issues. His has been a consistent vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Most-Favored-Nation trading status for China and the general corporate free-trade agenda, paralleling the position of corporation-funded and militantly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council.

Lieberman, a former DLC chair, said that his selection as the Democratic party's 2000 vice presidential nominee "was surely a recognition of the enduring values and new ideas of the New Democratic movement." About that, he is surely correct.

The question that remains is this one: Do the voters who will decide the Democratic primaries and caucuses of 2004 really share the values of Lieberman and other DLC stalwarts who have battled to steer the party to the right? Or will they reject a Lieberman candidacy that is guaranteed to blur the margins of distinction between the two major parties even more than in the disasterous 2002 election cycle?

As George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University replied when asked about Lieberman's prospects as a presidential contender: "Democrats might want someone with a more of a Democratic edge."

The Fight for the Future of Music

America stands on the cusp of a sweeping set of shifts in federal media ownership rules that could dramatically alter the nature of what we see, hear and read, warns Federal Commications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein. Dialogue and debate about these proposed changes must be ramped up quickly if the public interest is to be protected.

But first, how about a harmonica solo?

Before delivering his first major policy address at the annual conference of the Future of Music Coalition, Adelstein wowed a crowd of several hundred there by playing a mean harmonica during a performance by Lester Chambers of the groundbreaking 1960s group The Chambers Brothers.

Adelstein, a Democrat whose appointment to the five-member FCC was recently approved, could not have chosen a better way to introduce himself to the musicians, journalists and advocates who crowded an ancient hall on Washington's Georgetown University campus. Appearing on a stage that had been occupied during this year's Future of Music Coalition conference by rock stars like Patti Smith and Living Color's Vernon Reid, jazz players such as Alfonzo Blackwell, producers like the legendary Sandy Pearlman and media personalities such as Ira Glass, host of the This American Life radio show, Adelstein knew he had to perform. And he got high marks for his able riffs during Chambers' performance of "People Get Ready."

But he got higher marks for his eyes-wide-open report on the devastating impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on radio diversity. Before an audience filled with people who worry that the Congress or the FCC just don't get it, Adelstein came across as a commissioner who understands what is at stake when regulators allow media corporations to dominate whole communications systems.

"The 1996 Act entirely eliminated a cap on the number of radio stations a single company can own nationwide. It also relaxed local ownership limits, permitting a single owner to control up to eight stations in the nations' largest markets. As one might have predicted, the relaxation of these rules led inevitably to more stations in fewer hands," Adelstein said.

"According to one FCC report, in the six years since the adoption of the 1996 Act, the number of radio station owners in the United States declined by 34 percent, even though the number of commercial radio stations increased by 5.4 percent. The FCC found that the decline is primarily due to mergers between existing owners."

To illustrate the dramatic nature of the changes that have taken place, Adelstein noted that, "In 1996, the two largest radio group owners consisted of fewer than 65 radio stations. Six years later, the largest radio group owns about 1,200 radio stations. The second largest group owns about 250 stations. Their influence is even larger than their numbers suggest, because they are concentrated in the largest markets in the country."

Adelstein hailed a Future of Music Coalition report that showed how more and more programming on local radio stations is being done at the national level by media conglomerates rather than at the local level by hometown disc jockeys. "We must consider how consolidation affects all of you as artists," Adelstein told the crowd of several hundred recording artists and music industry players who attended the conference Monday. "Years ago, as a new artist, you might have gotten your first airplay on your local station – in a town where the DJ heard you at a local club the night before and wanted everyone in town to hear you, as well. As national groups buy out more local stations, that town may no longer have a local DJ at all."

"Consolidation," Adelstein warned, "often leads to the homogenization of programming. We must ask ourselves: At what point does consolidation come at the cost of the local expression that makes radio so unique and so special in this country? At what point does allowing consolidation undermine the public interest – and the quality of what we hear on the radio?"

The answer, according to many of the artists attending the conference, is that the point of impact has already been passed. "Because of radio consolidation and the emphasis of strict formats and constant cost cutting by media companies, musicians and fans of music are losing out," says musician Jenny Toomey, who serves as executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. "Consolidation has led to less diversity."

One member of Congress, US Senator Russ Feingold, has sought to address the negative impacts of the Telecommunications Act with legislation. The Wisconsin Democrat's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act seeks to address concerns about media monopolies, the loss of diversity and the return of old-fashioned payola scandals. But before Feingold's legislation even gets a hearing in Congress, the FCC could take steps that will lead to greater consolidation and conglomeration within media industries. At issue in coming months are proposals to ease rules that prevent a single television network from controlling stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience, as well as rules regarding the number of television and radio stations that one company could own in a single region. Another proposed rule change could allow one company to own a major daily newspaper and the major television and radio station in the same community.

FCC chair Michael Powell and at least two other FCC commissioners are believed to be sympathetic to demands by media corporations for further relaxation of ownership rules. But Adelstein continues to argue for caution, and he suggested that activism by musicians and music fans could yet change the character and the direction of the debate.

"Congress's relaxation of the rules on radio consolidation has been the canary in the mine, testing whether it is safe to go in before miners dare enter," Adelstein explained. "The miners in this case are all the consumers affected by FCC rules that govern the ownership of television, radio, cable and newspapers," he said. "The FCC better carefully consider the health of that canary before we proceed further, because changes to the FCC's media ownership rules potentially could alter the media landscape as much or more than the 1996 actions by Congress changed the radio industry."

Recalling a line from "People Get Ready" the song he played harmonica on a few minutes earlier Adelstein said: "Lester Chambers got it right: There's a big train a coming." And if musicians and music fans don't want the train to roll over them, Adelstein suggested, it's time to get active. "In order to insure that there continues to be a range of voices heard over the airwaves and through all of the media, we need to continue to hear you voices loud and clear before the FCC and throughout the government," Adelstein said. "So turn it up!"

'The Politics Were on the Street'

The punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s seized the power of rock-and-roll back from the corporate conglomerates that had warped the music into a flabby, over-produced, stadium-rocking mess.

But it was Joe Strummer who made punk rock more than just an anarchic flail against the dying of the light. With The Clash, Strummer gave punk a militant, internationalist, pro-Black edge that made it matter not just as a musical statement but as a political one.

"It was The Clash that struck the strong political stance that really inspired a lot of people, and within The Clash he was the political engine of the band," explained British singer Billy Bragg.

Strummer, who died Sunday from an apparent heart attack at age 50, was in on the ground floor of the punk moment. He saw a 1976 gig by the Sex Pistols and decided to start a band with Mick Jones and, after several personnel shifts, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. By the summer of that year, The Clash was opening for the Pistols, and by the start of 1977 The Clash had a British hit with "White Riot." Even on that first single, Strummer displayed the sensibilities that would come to define The Clash's music: a reverence for radicalism, a faith in the power of direct action, an unyielding honesty and bluntness, a call to arms and a respect for rhythm that distinguished his band from most its contemporaries.

Written by Strummer and Jones at a time when British cities were experiencing a wave of urban riots, "White Riot" celebrated the revolt of Caribbean and African immigrants against the genteel racism of the British upper classes and asked why working-class whites didn't join the fight. ("Black people gotta lot a problems/But they don't mind throwing a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick...) The song's class consciousness ("All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it...") was matched by a demand for activism that pushed punk in a new and some thought dangerous direction ("Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?/Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?").

The self-titled album that followed was so edgy that Columbia Records - the parent company of the band's British label - refused to release it in the United States.

Barely two years later, however, with the release of "London Calling," The Clash were suddenly being referred to by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as "The Only Band That Matters." For a few years there, it was hard to argue with the description. The Clash helped to define the punk and new wave movements as explicitly anti-racist -- working with ska and reggae bands to build the late-1970s Rock Against Racism movement in Britain.

Ultimately, however, the greatest political and cultural contributions made by Strummer and The Clash came in the form of the music. Fueled by Strummer's fascination with the world's music - born John Graham Mellor in Turkey, Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent much of his early life in Egypt, Mexico, Malawi and Iran - the band sampled widely from a diverse blend of musical styles.

Clash albums were infused with reggae, ska, funk and African rhythms, as well as with radical ideas about race, class and politics. Socialist, internationalist and angry, Strummer and The Clash started out by savaging British policies (especially those of a rising Tory politician named Margaret Thatcher) but they quickly found a bigger target in US foreign policy. The band's epic, three-album 1980 release, "Sandinista!" -- which was inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 -- was a fierce indictment of US policy in Latin American. One song, "Washington Bullets," recalled the US role in the overthrow of the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende: "As every cell in Chile will tell/The cries of the tortured men," Strummer growled. "Remember Allende, and the days before,/Before the army came/Please remember Victor Jara,/In the Santiago Stadium,/Es verdad - those Washington Bullets again."

Strummer took pains to emphasize that he was a musician first - more a fan of Mott the Hoople than Marx, he liked to say. Yet, Strummer argued, it was impossible to avoid the reality of economic, racial and social injustice: "The politics were on the street in front of us, man," he said, explaining that The Clash was forged in a moment when London was the home to refugees from Chile, as well as South Africans, Namibians and Zimbabweans who had fled white racist regimes in Africa

More than any other punk star, Strummer argued that the movement itself needed to be remembered as a radical break not just from increasingly pompous musical norms of the early 1970s but from a conservative mindset. "I will always believe in punk rock, because it's about creating something for yourself," he said in a July, 2002, interview. "Part of it was: 'Stop being a sap! Lift your head up and see what is really going on in the political, social and religious situations, and try to see through the smoke screens."

The Clash fell apart in the mid-1980s, after Strummer and Jones fell out. But the band's influence grew - to a point where, next March, it will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For his part, Strummer retreated to rural England and slowly forged a solo career that ended up maintaining the values - both musical and political - of his best work with The Clash. His version of "Minstrel Boy" was a highlight of the "Black Hawk Down" movie soundtrack and the 2001 CD from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, "Global Ago-Go" was a brilliant multicultural mix flavored with Strummer's best singing since his heyday with The Clash.

Strummer was working on a new Mescaleros release at the time of his death, along with a much-anticipated collaboration with U2's Bono and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics titled "48864." That's the number Nelson Mandela bore while imprisoned on South Africa's Robben Island. The song was supposed to debut February 2, as part of a Robben Island benefit to help Mandela raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa.

Those who knew the man and his music were not at all surprised that Strummer's last project was every bit as militant and globally-focused as his remarkable career.

"The thing about Strummer was he walked it like he talked it," said Billy Bragg. "He didn't cop out."

Check and Balance Cheney's Choice

George W. Bush has chosen a nominee to replace ousted Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. More precisely, the president has rubber-stamped a selection made by Vice President Dick Cheney.

As with the outgoing Cabinet member, the man designated to take O'Neill's place, CSX Chairman John Snow, is a longtime crony of Cheney.

In Snow's case, the tie goes back at least to the mid-1970s, when Snow served as deputy undersecretary of the Transportation Department and administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration under President Gerald Ford, whom Cheney served as chief of staff.

Just as Cheney parlayed a position as secretary of defense in the first Bush's White House into a big-money job at the helm of Halliburton, a defense contractor he had formerly "regulated," Snow parlayed his Transportation Department post into a big-money job with Chessie System (CSX), a transportation conglomerate he used to regulate.

Now Cheney is back in charge and Snow is preparing to step once more through the revolving door - this time to serve as the president's top adviser on tax and fiscal issues. Just as Cheney has used the vice presidency to serve the interests of Halliburton, Snow will be in a position to deliver for CSX and other corporations to which he is tied as a former chairman of the Business Roundtable.

Members of the U.S. Senate, who are charged under the Constitution with the task of determining whether Cabinet nominees meet the standards that should be set for government service, should uphold that responsibility by closely examining Snow's troubling pattern of turning government service to personal and corporate advantage. They should also analyze the even more serious question of whether, as the nation's secretary of the treasury, Snow is capable of serving the best interests of the United States or simply of corporate America.

On the plus side, Snow was a reasonably outspoken critic of the corporate corruption exposed when Enron collapsed in late 2001. "The scandals, the breakdowns, the collapses, the fraud, the misconduct that was so apparent in the Enrons and the Tycos and the Global Crossings has shaken our confidence," Snow told a forum at which he said a failure by corporations to change the way they do business would make it necessary for Congress and federal regulators to step in.

Corporations have not reformed and, so far, Congress has done a haphazard job of pressing them to do so. As part of the confirmation process, Snow ought to be asked by senators to explain what exactly he believes should be done to crack down on continuing corporate crime and bad faith.

While they're at it, senators should ask Snow to discuss his attitudes regarding federal involvement with American industries, since he has sent decidedly mixed signals in this area. A longtime proponent of deregulation, he did not hesitate to accept federal aid that helped CSX. If Snow is one of these CEOs who believe government is a bad player unless it is lining his pockets, the country would be better off without his thumb on the scale that weighs federal business policy.

Finally, Snow should be required to discuss the extent to which his past forays into government "service" might have benefited CSX, and whether his confirmation would lead to further benefits for CSX and other corporations with which he has ties.

Dick Cheney's recruitment of Snow should be viewed skeptically by the Senate. The Bush-Cheney White House has tended too frequently to serve as an outpost of corporate America. With the American economy in a perilous place, we do not need to be "rescued" by someone whose first priority is taking care of himself and his corporate cronies.

Between a Rock and a Hardass

Trent Lott is at the bottom of a deep hole, and he is digging like crazy. Every time the Dixiecrat cheerleader denies his Confederate tendencies, he comes out looking a little more like his hero - Jefferson Davis - in his "oops" days following the Civil War.

Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television the other day was so painfully inept that the BET commentators who reviewed the Mississippi senator's pathetic "some of my best friends are ..." performance tried to cut him some slack. He was at least trying to say the right thing, they suggested, even if Lott's attempts to paint himself as a champion of affirmative action were so tortured that none could actually make a case for allowing him to remain as Senate majority leader in the new Congress.

If the commentators were gentle, Lott's fellow Republicans were not.

The knives are being sharpened, and some of the nastiest thugs in Washington are getting ready to hunt Lott down.

After George W. Bush signaled that he would not defend Lott, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles took the first swipe at the majority leader by calling for Senate Republicans to vote anew on whether Lott should lead them. Nickles did not declare himself a candidate to replace Lott, but he has long coveted the majority leader position.

The outgoing assistant majority leader, Nickles has always believed he would be a better boss of Senate Republicans than Lott. And there is no question that when they were handing out political smarts, Nickles got a much larger share than Mississippi's gift to the Senate. He is also, by every measure, a more aggressive and partisan conservative than Lott.

Nickles' objection to Lott never had anything to do with the majority leader's segregationist sentiments. They voted together against the 1983 legislation to create a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They voted together against expanding federal hate crimes protections in 2000. They voted together against moves to expand the ability of minorities to use the courts to fight job discrimination. (Indeed, on civil rights issues, Nickles' voting record is generally rated as bad or worse than Lott's. While the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights give both men similarly dismal ratings, the National Hispanic Leadership Coalition's most recent survey gave Lott a 27 percent approval rating, while Nickles scored 0.)

If anything, Nickles is more of a social conservative than Lott, whose pragmatism and willingness to work with Republican moderates such as Maine's Olympia Snowe and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter has long troubled the fundamentalist right. Richard Viguerie, whose direct-mail fund-raising machine powers much of the right's political activism, says of Nickles: "He's got that fire that Lott seems to have lost."

Nickles champions the religious right agenda in Congress - promoting schemes to display the Ten Commandments in the public schools and backing every effort to limit access to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. In 1996, he was a leading sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act and other legislation designed to prevent gay and lesbian couples from receiving the same benefits and legal protections as heterosexual couples.

As insensitive as Lott may be on race issues, Nickles is even more insensitive when it comes to concerns of women and gays and lesbians. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Nickles' record suggested, correctly, that "in many of those battles (on social issues), he found himself to the right of Mr. Lott."

In fairness, these are close calls. The American Conservative Union gives Nickles a lifetime "right voting" rating of 96, to 93 for Lott. But, by a reasonable margin, the John Birch Society identifies Nickles as a senator who is consistently more to their liking than Lott. The latest vote analysis by the Birchers gave Nickles one of the group's highest approval ratings in Congress - 90 percent right wing. Lott could only muster an 80 percent right wing rating.

With the famously tight-lipped Bush administration suddenly leaking criticism of Lott on a daily basis, there is no question that Nickles will succeed in forcing a new leadership vote. And it is getting harder to imagine how Lott will survive. That does not mean that Nickles will grab the top job - a pair of somewhat smoother conservatives, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and Tennessee's Bill Frist (a White House favorite) are also interested in the position. But if the choice does come down to Lott and Nickles - a rock and a hard-ass - Republicans will have a difficult time making the case that trading a doltish and intolerant Mississippian for a smart and intolerant Oklahoman represents progress.

Gore's Gone, But Will Dems Freshen Up?

Poor Al Gore, he never could get presidential politics right. Just as the former vice president and 2000 Democratic nominee for the top job was starting to take some of the bold stands that might have inspired grassroots Democrats to consider him anew – criticizing the rush to war with Iraq, pointing an appropriate finger of blame for economic instability at Bush tax policies, and acknowledging that a single-payer national health care plan is needed – he decides NOT to run in 2004.

With his announcement Sunday that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Gore essentially admitted that he could not get away with remaking himself again. The son of a senator who entertained presidential ambitions, Gore has spent a lifetime preparing for the job he has now decided not to seek. It was that process of preparation that finally caught up with him: As Gore prepared for a new run, he found that too few Democrats were all that enthusiastic about the prospect of deciding which Al Gore they would have to try and elect in 2004.

Gore's announcement gives Democrats a chance to move beyond the reinvention of a man to the more significant task of reinventing their party. Despite his many weaknesses, Gore remained a frontrunner for the 2004 nomination in most polls, largely because of his popularity among the most loyal Democratic constituencies, especially African-Americans. Now, Democrats have an opportunity to offer voters not just a fresh face but a fresh approach.

The operative word here is "opportunity," however, not "certainty." That's because Gore was not the only old Democratic warhorse threatening to take to the track once more. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who made a failed bid for the party nomination in 1988, and soon-to-be former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, are still pondering 2004 runs. Indeed, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday, "I think Daschle will now definitely run."

But Voters had a chance to express confidence in Gephardt and Daschle in the 2002 House and Senate elections; and they chose not to do so – to devastating effect for the party that is now struggling to mount a credible Congressional opposition to the Bush juggernaut. This pair of Congressional leaders would do their party a big favor by following Gore out to pasture.

Two senior senators from New England, Massachusetts' John Kerry and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, are clearly contending. Kerry has a few things to recommend him – a generally progressive voting record, a compelling personal story, a willingness to take on the Bush administration regarding foreign policy. Lieberman brings none of those assets to the competition, but he has stronger name recognition from his 2000 vice presidential campaign.

Despite repeated missteps that have cost him some of his luster, North Carolina Senator John Edwards still talks about running. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Delaware Senator Joe Biden are both still making noise about entering the contest. And Dodd can point to a sounder voting record than Kerry, Lieberman or Biden. Retired General Wesley Clark has no voting record, but he is also thinking of seeking the nomination.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean is already in the race. On Sunday, he sought to position himself as the closest thing the party has to an anti-war candidate. In Gore's absence, he noted that he is "the only candidate who opposed the president's request for congressional authorization of military force against Iraq and the only one advocating universal health insurance. It makes it easier for me to distinguish myself from the field."

Dean could face some serious competition for the anti-war mantle, however. Now that Gore is out, watch for increased speculation about the prospect that Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, might enter the race. Kucinich's strong anti-war stance is popular with the party faithful, especially in Iowa where doubts about the war are widespread among likely caucus voters. And, if Kucinich runs, he will not necessarily be the last "surprise" entry.

Because of Gore's exit, the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004 will be a better competition, with more candidates and more opportunities for Democrats to shape a fresher and more credible opposition to George W. Bush. Thus, it may be said that Gore did more for his party by leaving the 2004 race than he could ever have done by staying in it.

Trent Lott's "Uptown Klan"

The incredible thing about the controversy surrounding soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's kissing up to the racist legacy of Strom Thurmond is that anyone thinks it is incredible.

Lott is on the hot seat for telling a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who in 1948 ran an overtly racist campaign for president on the State's Rights Party ticket: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."

Those remarks have caused a major stir, which is appropriate. But this is hardly the first time that Lott, who began his political career in the 1960s as an aide to segregationist Democratic Congressman William Colmer, has hailed the legacy of those who fought to defend the practices of slavery and segregation. Nor is the tortured "apology" Lott has issued the first to come from the senator.

Indeed, there is no greater constant in Trent Lott's political career than his embrace of all things Confederate.

To wit:

* In 1978, after his election to the US House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the US citizenship of Jefferson Davis restored. Davis lost his citizenship when he became president of the Confederate States of America when southern states were in open revolt against the US government.

* During the 1980 campaign, after Thurmond spoke at a Mississippi rally for Ronald Reagan, Lott said of the old Dixiecrat: "You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."

* In 1981, when he was lending his prestige as a member of the US Congress to an effort to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University -- the notorious South Carolina college that was under fire for prohibiting interracial dating -- Lott insisted that, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."

* Despite the fact that he represents the state with the largest percentage of African-American citizens in the US, Lott has throughout his career been an active supporter of the Sons of the Confederacy, a group that celebrates the soldiers who fought to defend the "right" of Mississippians to own African-Americans as slaves." Lott even appears in recruitment videos for the group.

* Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform." Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party... and more of The South's sons, Jefferson Davis' descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party."

* Lott gave the keynote address at a 1992 national executive board meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the old white Citizens Councils, segregation-era groups the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as "the white-collar Ku Klux Klan. The C of CC may have changed its name, but it remains a passionate "white racialist" group that condemns intermarriage, integration and immigration by non-whites. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who has researched the group, argues, "There is no question of the resegregationist agenda of the Council of Conservative Citizens when four of the seven links listed on the home page for former Klan leader David Duke link back to the Council of Conservative Citizens." Other links, Jackson has noted, "deny the Holocaust and sell T-shirts with swastikas and Nazi stormtrooper symbols." But when Lott appeared at that Greenwood, Mississippi, meeting of C of CC leaders, he did not address his disdain for racism or anti-Semitism. Rather, he discussed his concerns about "the dark forces" that he said were overwhelming America and said, "We need more meetings like this across the nation... The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries."

* In 1997, Lott was photographed meeting with national leaders of the C of CC in his Washington office. At his side were two prominent C of CC leaders: Gordon Baum, a former field organizer for the Citizens Councils in the days when they were referred to as the "uptown Klan," and William Lord, who has acknowledged using the mailing lists of the Citizens Councils to build the C of CC in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, the C of CC used an endorsement quote from Lott in recruitment literature.

* When the Washington Post began to detail Lott's ties to the C of CC, his office announced that he had "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views." But when The New York Times asked Lott's uncle, former Mississippi state Sen. Arnie Watson, a member of the C of CC executive board, about ties between the senator and the organization, Watson said, "Trent is an honorary member." When a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger showed up at a 1998 C of CC meeting in Mississippi, he was told by those in attendance that Lott was a member. Lott's office never challenged the report when it appeared in his homestate's largest newspaper. But a year later, when the Washington Post took the issue up, Lott said, "I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear."

* Yet, a column written by Lott still appeared on a regular basis in the Citizens Informer, the group's publication, alongside articles thick with statements like: "Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself."

* Go to the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens today and you will find, beneath the Confederate flag and the section attacking an African-American professor at Vanderbilt, a big smiling picture of the Mississippi senator next to headlines that read: "A Lott of Courage!" "C of CC Passes Resolution Commending Lott" and "Lott Needs Your Support."

When he started to face questions about his most recent praise of Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, Lott initially said that his remarks were just part of "a lighthearted celebration" of the retiring segregationist's career. That was enough for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, to give Lott an initial pass. But, thankfully, Julian Bond and the NAACP, and a few African-American and progressive members of the House, refused to allow the matter to die. Only under this lingering pressure did Lott sort of apologize by saying of his statement at the Thurmond bash: "I regret the way it has been interpreted."

That's the standard line from Lott, who always apologizes when he gets caught defending the defenders of slavery and segregation. But, so far, Lott has never failed to follow each "apology" with another tribute to the Confederacy or the segregationists who seek even in the 21st century to maintain the racist legacy of Jefferson Davis, Strom Thurmond and the "uptown Klan."

A Democrat Wins by Running Against Bush

"The light has shown that the Democratic Party is alive and well and united,"Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu shouted over the weekend, as she celebratedher victory in the last Senate contest of 2002.

Alive? Yes.

Well? No, but perhaps better diagnosed.

United? Get real.

Louisiana's unique election laws require that, if no contender in acongressional race wins 50 percent in initial voting, the two top vote gettersmust face one another in a runoff election. When Landrieu won just 46 percent ofthe vote on November 5, forcing her into a runoff with Republican Suzanne HaikTerrell, Republican strategists declared that an already battered DemocraticParty would lose another southern Senate seat.

It didn't turn out that way. Landrieu prevailed by a 52-48 margin, and inanother runoff election Democrat Rodney Alexander appears to have narrowly won aUS House seat that had previously been held by a conservative Republican.

Indeed, if November 5 was the worst day of the year for the Democrats, December7may well have been the best.

Of course, nothing has really changed. Republicans will still control theSenate by a margin of 51-49 (Independent Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, caucuses with48 Democrats). And even if Alexander prevails in an expected recount, the Housewill still be solidly Republican.

But when the results of Louisiana's runoff elections were delivered Saturdaynight, Democrats gained a significant psychological victory. President Bush,Vice President Cheney and just about everyone else who has ever clipped on aWhite House pass showed up in Louisiana to stump for

Terrell. "You had anational parade of Republican all-stars coming into Louisiana for Terrell, ledby Bush himself," recalled veteran Louisiana political commentator Silas LeeIII. But the presidential coattails that supposedly pulled so many Republicansinto Congress in November proved to be slippery in December.

But a couple of wins in Louisiana do not a partisan comebeck make. Democratsstill have a tremendous amount of regrouping to do if they want to be seriousplayers in the presidential and congressional politics of 2004. There are stillthose in the party who push a Republican-lite line on economic issues -- anapproach that, had she adopted it in the runoff, would have guaranteedLandrieu's defeat.

Democrats who are interested in unlocking the secret to their party's future --if there is to be one -- would do well to study the race that led to Saturday's win for Landrieu.

How did Landrieu prevail? She started by firing the Washington-based campaignconsultants who had her bragging during the pre-November 5 campaign about votingwith the Republican president over 70 percent of the time. As oneAfrican-American minister in Louisiana explained, Landrieu's campaign actuallydepressed the Democratic vote becuase sincere Democrats have a hard timefiguring out why they should vote for someone who boasts about backing theRepublican president.

After she fired the consultants, Landrieu made a dramatic shift in her message.Instead of claiming to be 70 percent pro-Bush, she highlighted her differenceswith the president and Republicans in Congress -- especially on bread-and-buttereconomic issues. While Terrell did everything she could to wrap herself in theGOP label, Landrieu ripped the White House for secretly negotiating a trade dealthat would undercut Louisiana sugarcane growers. Sure Terrells is a goodRepublican soldier, Landrieu said, but the Democratic senator and her backersasked: "Do you want a label or a leader? Do you want a rubber stamp or a senator?"

"In the primary, Mary Landrieu ran as a friend of Bush. In the runoff, she hadto distance herself from him," says Lee, who noted that Landrieu's switch to amore skeptical stance regarding Bush administartion policies seems to havehelped her draw more African-American and white working-class voters to thepolls. That effort was aided tremendously when, apparently with a push fromformer President Bill Clinton, state Sen. Cleo Fields, a popularAfrican-American leader who has been at odds with Landrieu since she undercuthis 1995 gubernatorial campaign, endorsed the senator in a show of party unity.

Mary Landrieu was no progressive before December 5, and she is no progressivenow. But by putting some distance between herself and Bush, by reaching out tocore Democratic constituencies, and by focusing in on local economic issues, sheoffered an alternative not just to Terrell but to the Bush administration andRepublican policies.

"Many Democrats who ran close to Bush lost in November -- in Georgia, inMissouri and in other states," says Lee. "Landrieu gained an advantage bydistinguishing herself from the president."

For Democrats, that's a healthy lesson. Running scared and then running tooclose to the Bush administration in November cost opposition party candidatesdearly. Running in December on the argument that it is right to say "no" to Bushwhen he's wrong, especially on economics, paid off for the party -- or at leastfor one of its most embattled senators.

Kissinger? Kissinger?

If President Bush had set out to undermine the credibility of the commission charged with probing the intelligence and security flaws that allowed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to succeed, he would have begun by naming as the chair someone with a track record of secrecy, double-dealing and bartering himself off to the highest bidder.

And so the president, who has resisted the investigation for more than a year, did just that.

With the selection of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head the 10-member commission, Bush has signaled that he is more interested in covering for the intelligence establishment – and the administration's allies in corrupt oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia -- than in getting to the truth.

Even by the relatively low standards that one must apply when dealing with former Nixon administration insiders, Kissinger is a reprehensible figure. As Britain's Guardian newspaper put it: "This man is regarded by many outside the US as a war criminal."

Guardian writer Julian Borger summed up a rather common reaction to the Kissinger selection in a column titled "Henry's Revenge," which opened with the observation that: "Those Europeans who were aware that the old cold warrior was still alive could be forgiven for assuming he was in a cell somewhere awaiting war crimes charges, or living the life of a fugitive, never sleeping in the same bed twice lest human rights investigators track him down."

It is not just a European reaction. In the US Christopher Hitchens' fine book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" -- which details the former Nixon and Ford adminsitration aide's responsibility for mass killings of civilians, genocide and coups -- remains a best-selling title.

"The Bush administration did not want an objective inquiry into the disastrous intelligence failures," Hitchens said after Kissinger's selection was announced, "and having an inquiry chaired by Henry Kissinger is the next best thing."

Kissinger's role in perpetuating the war in Vietnam, as well as the illegal attacks on Cambodia and Laos during the Nixon years is well documented. So too is his involvement with the murderous coup that overthrew the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende and installed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Kissinger was, as well, involved in the dirty dealing that encouraged Indonesia's military to invade East Timor and oppress the people of that island nation for a quarter century. And, as chair of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (1983-84), Kissinger helped the Reagan administration provide cover for the illegal war in Central America.

More recently, Kissinger has been a paid apologist for the Chinese government and a consistent defender of dictatorships around the world. While Kissinger refuses to release the names of his clients -- and client states, it is widely believed that, in addition to his Chinese paymasters, Kissinger is collecting hefty sums of money from interests in the Persian Gulf. National Security Archive founder Scott Anderson, a former staff member of Senate Watergate Committee, is of the view that Kissinger's sordid past -- and compromised present -- will make it impossible for him to lead a credible investigation.

"He has so many clients whose interests are so completely tied up in the results of this investigation," Armstrong says of Kissinger. "The minute you start talking about clerics in Saudi Arabia, it's in no way in the interests of his clients for the whole truth to be told."

About the best that can be said of the selection of Kissinger is this: At 79, he may be inclined to try and finally do something useful for America and the world – in hopes of earning a measure of redemption for an ill-spent life. But no one who cared to find out what really led up to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington would gamble an investigation so important as this on so remote a prospect.

The Poindextering of Privacy Rights

Back in the days when the United States government was overtly and covertly assisting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the most extreme Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan, US Navy Rear Admiral John Poindexter was in the thick of it.

Serving as the Reagan administration's national security adviser, Poindexter helped devise the secret Iran-Contra networks that the White House used to illegally sell arms to the fundamentalist dictators of Iran and then schemed to divert the ill-gotten gain to the Nicaraguan rebels who sought to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

Poindexter's violations of the public trust were so extreme that in the late 1980s his story came to serve as an internationally recognized example of what happens when government officials begin to operate outside the legal and moral boundaries of civil society.

Poindexter beat several of his felony convictions (a jury convicted him in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading Congress and making false statements, only to have an appeals court overturn the verdict not because Poindexter was innocent but because Congress had given him immunity in return for his testimony). But few people associated with the scandal-plagued Reagan administration were more discredited than Poindexter. And nothing the retired admiral has done in the past 15 years has restored the faith of rational Americans - or international observers - in this troubled man's sullied integrity.

Except, of course, within the Bush Administration.

With the election of George W. Bush, Poindexter returned to Washington's good graces. Now, with a Congressional seal of approval that was tucked into the Homeland Security bill, he is developing the Total Information Awareness program within a new federal operation, the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA). The TIA project, which Poindexter devised, is an ambitious plan to use new software and computer-generated data collection that -in the words of the New York Times - seeks to "use the vast networking powers of the computer to 'mine' huge amounts of information about people."

Under the aegis of the Pentagon, the TIA initiative is ostensibly being designed to help federal agencies identify and locate "potential" terrorists. In reality, the TIA initiative could result in shadowy federal agencies having unprecedented access to the private communications of Americans. Indeed, according to the Times, if Poindexter's plans come to fruition, "all the transactions of everyday life - credit card purchases, travel and telephone records, even Internet traffic like e-mail - would be grist for the electronic mill."

Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, refers to the initiative as "the most sweeping threat to civil liberties since Japanese-American internment."

The federal government has a responsibility to take legitimate steps to protect Americans from terrorists and terrorism. But that responsibility must be balanced with another responsibility to respect the privacy of law-abiding Americans and to preserve the civil liberties that underpin our freedom.

There is nothing legitimate - or necessary - about creating the sort of massive, secret surveillance network that the TIA has the potential to become. If Poindexter's latest scheme is fully realized, terrorist plotters won't be the only ones posing threats to the security of average Americans. The most persistent threat may well come from reckless players within their own government - one of whom, John Poindexter, has a track record of lawlessness.

That's something that responsible players in Congress ought to be concerned with.

The US Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution will be chaired until January by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Feingold, whose courageous opposition to the Patriot Act was based on his concerns about threats posed to civil liberties in general and privacy rights in particular, should use the last weeks of his chairmanship to examine, challenge and steps to place a check upon Poindexter's TIA project. Poindexter and others associated with the Bush administration are still seeking additional legislative authority to undermine privacy rights -- in particular, amendment of the Privacy Act of 1974 -- and the debate over these moves can open the way for an examination of the sorry state of civil liberties in the age of the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Department. Feingold and other senators who raise these issues will find they have unexpected allies among conservative Republicans -- an important factor, since Republicans will soon control all the key committees in the House and Senate. Conservative columnist William Safire has referred to Poindexter's current project as "a sweeping theft of privacy rights." Outgoing US Representative Bob Barr, R-Georgia, has been outspoken in his condemnation of the sections of the Homeland Security legislation that authorize the collection of public and private data into the Pentagon's "centralized grand database," saying: "You would think the Pentagon planning a system to peek at personal data would get a little more attention. It's outrageous, it really is outrageous."

If members of Congress had been more aggressive with Poindexter in the 1980s, the rule of law might well have been respected and many lives would have been saved in Central America. Now, with Poindexter threatening civil liberties at home, Congress again has an opportunity - and a duty - to remind this man that the United States has a Constitution and that it guarantees Americans a right to privacy.

Syndicate content