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A bit of advice for the Bush White House: Don't pick fights with professional wordsmiths.
First Lady Laura Bush's decision to cancel a White House symposium on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes because she feared antiwar sentiments might be expressed has provoked a pummeling of the Administration by poets who would have been part of the February 12 "Poetry and the American Voice" session.
"The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does not wish to open its doors to an ‘American Voice' that does not echo the Administration's misguided policies," declared Rita Dove, the nation's poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. "I had no doubt in my mind that I couldn't go, if only because of the hideous use of language that emanates from this White House: The lying, the Orwellian euphemisms..." added Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, who said that he was sorry the first lady cancelled the symposium before he could refuse his invite.
Stanley Kunitz, the 2001 and 2002 poet laureate, observed that, "I think there was a general feeling that the current Administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse."
The poet who got off the best line may have been Sam Hamill, who noted that his name was on the invitation list despite his own history of antiwar activism. "I'm sure the person who put my name on the list is looking for a job," joked Hamill, whose request that writer friends send him antiwar poems for the symposium might have inspired the Administration's decision to cancel the event with a tart statement from Mrs. Bush's office that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." (Hamill's call has, so far, drawn more than 2,000 responses, including those of W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sent along a copy of, "Coda," a poem featuring the line: "And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center-Into the beginning of the Third World War.")
Actually, Mrs. Bush would have been lucky if her symposium had featured only contemporary criticism of US imperialism and conservative policies. A far greater danger for the Administration was the prospect that those attending the conference would have used the words of Dickinson, Hughes and Whitman against them.
Dickinson may not have been a radical, but nor was she enthusiastic about militarism. Benjamin Lasee, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Northeastern Illinois University, has written of how Dickinson counted the cost of war: "In one poem ('It feels a shame to be Alive'), she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and closes by asking why ‘such Enormous Pearl' as life should be dissolved 'In Battle's horrid Bowl.'"
Hughes (who would have turned 101 on Saturday, February 1) was a proud leftist whose poetry condemned US government hypocrisy at home and abroad. Reflecting on racism in the United States, Hughes wrote, "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes..." and argued: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above." And could there be a more damning reflection of the Bush's Administration's use of post-September 11 sentiment to pass the Patriot Act than Hughes' line: "O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath"?
Whitman, of course, would have been the most problematic poet for the Bushes. Openly gay and radical, he was no friend to politicians, complaining that offices such as the presidency were "bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes." And one can only imagine the reaction of this Administration's conservative thought police to Whitman's great mandate: "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."
Hamill, who plans to post the antiwar poems at www.PoetsAgainstTheWar.org, made a very good point when he said, "I saw profound irony in their choice of poets. These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House -- the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever read Whitman."
When Congressional Democrats asked Governor Gary Locke of Washington state to deliver the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, they ceded what could have been be their highest profile media moment of the year to someone who does not sit in the House or Senate. It was a mistake.
Locke is an able if not particularly exciting administrator, and he had some good things to say about the way that states -- and the people who live in them -- could be harmed by administration proposals to roll back environmental protections, skew tax cuts to benefit the richest Americans and privatize Medicare. But he danced around foreign policy questions, and he never landed a serious blow on Bush's domestic agenda.
If ever there was a moment when Democrats in Washington needed to ask someone who is in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill to describe their differences with the administration, it was following this year's State of the Union address. After the November, 2002, elections put conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and with the Bush administration now moving aggressively to launch a war with Iraq, advance an economically preposterous "stimulus" plan and nominate right-wing judicial activists for openings on every federal bench, Democrats in Congress could not afford to surrender the rebuttal spot that remains one of the few openings for a serious critique of the president's highest-profile annual address.
To be fair to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, they did organize a "prebuttal" press conference on Monday, where Pelosi did a decent job of arguing that the administration needs to broaden its definition of security to include economic security at home. Daschle showed some rhetorical flair when he announced that, "The state of our union today is anxious. The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking."
But, for the most part, Daschle still seemed to be having a hard time presenting a surer, clearer vision of the course Democrats would set. Neither Locke's rebuttal nor the Daschle-Pelosi "prebuttal" sounded like the sort of rip-roaring alternative that might energize opponents of the administration policies in Washington or beyond. For that, Americans needed to search out reports of Tuesday's Alternative State of the Union session in the Capitol, where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mounted a devastating assault on administration policies.
"We are holding an Alternative State of the Union address because we believe that Americans deserve a vision of a future of peace and justice rather than war and economic hardship and inequality," said California Democrat Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the 53-member caucus, as she opened the session. "At last year's State of the Union, President Bush gave us the axis of evil. Today, we face crises and possible war on multiple fronts. In fact, we face possible endless war because the doctrine of preemption knows no limits. It also brings us no security."
The Progressive Caucus' 15-page critique of the State of the Union as year three of the Bush presidency begins was delivered by Lee's co-chair, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. It argued that President Bush has "brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iraq, yet the Administration has not produced any compelling evidence linking Iraq to the attacks of 9-11, nor any evidence that Iraq poses a threat to the United States." It accused the White House of taking actions that had "squandered widespread international sympathy and support for the U.S. after the 9-11 attack," "assaulted basic civil liberties" and "(waged) class warfare against the majority of Americans, even as the nation sputters along the edge of a double dip recession." And it offered a dramatically different vision for where America should be headed, declaring:
"Today, Progressives in Congress offer an alternative that will create peace and prosperity for all Americans:
* Progressives believe that a war with Iraq is unjustified and the U.S. should halt the war preparations. Instead, the U.S. should strongly support the UN inspectors in Iraq.
* Progressives believe that the national economy is in serious trouble and needs a genuine stimulus. The stimulus must be large, it must jump-start the economy immediately, it must create new jobs, it must be fair; it must put money in the pockets of the majority of Americans, and it should target neglected areas of society, such as housing, schools, and water systems.
* Progressives believe all Americans deserve a guarantee of high quality, affordable, health care. With the failure of the private market to deliver health care to 41 million Americans and affordable pharmaceuticals to senior citizens, Medicare should be improved and expanded to give high quality health care to every American and a prescription drug benefit to seniors.
* Progressives believe that jobs should pay living wages, that people be more easily able to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers and that the federal government should guarantee Social Security with the "full faith and credit of the United States."
* Progressives in Congress believe that Americans should be assured of strong civil rights and liberties, including reproductive choice.
America, gather up your courage. We can make America a better place. The future can be better than the past. There is an alternative to the Bush Administration."
Progressive Caucus members, especially Kucinich, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, have been in the forefront of organizing Congressional opposition to Bush administration plans to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. But Caucus members focused at least as much on economic issues. And as they built the case against the administration, it was difficult not to wonder how much Tuesday's night's discourse might have been improved if a Congressional Progressive Caucus representative, say Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, had been asked to deliver the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union on primetime television.
Sanders could have echoed his comments of earlier Tuesday, in which he said, "Unemployment is going up and we have lost 2 million good paying manufacturing jobs in the last two years, including many in Vermont. Poverty is increasing and the number of Americans who lack health insurance or are underinsured is also soaring. Instead of cutting back on Medicare and veterans' needs, and giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, President Bush should be providing serious legislative proposals that will protect the needs of the middle class and working families of our country."
Just imagine how much more exciting it would have been if the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union address had featured Barbara Lee announcing, as she did Tuesday: "Here in the United States, we hold ourselves up as model for all countries and peoples who seek to be free. We are not living up to this model. But we can. We can pursue peace and justice and through them achieve security. We can regrow this economy and create jobs and opportunities. We can preserve important existing protections, from affirmative action to reproductive freedoms to the Clean Air Act. We can invest in education, healthcare, and home building. And, next year's State of the Union could then be a reflection of how far we have come and how much progress we have made. That is the America that the Progressive Caucus envisions, and that is the future we will help forge."
As President Bush prepared to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he received a letter signed by more than 120 House members of the House of Representatives asking him "to use the opportunity provided in the upcoming State of the Union Address to offer assurances both to the American people and the international community that the United States remains committed to the diplomatic approach and comprehensive inspections process agreed to in the UN Security Council."
The letter, authored by Representatives Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, argues that the weapons inspection process "is an inherently difficult task requiring patience and perseverance." And it goes on to suggest that: "The report (given) by chief U.N. weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix and Director General Mohamed El-Baradei on Jan. 27, 2003, (assesses) whether the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency's comprehensive mission is proceeding in the unobstructed and effective manner necessary to realize the aims of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. We encourage your administration to sufficiently weigh future decisions regarding Iraq on the assessment given by UNMOVIC/IAEA, including additional inspection time and resources as appropriate. Your commitment to working through the UN Security Council and your vocal support for Resolution 1441 are critical to UNMOVIC/IAEA's eventual success."
Though the Bush administration has been extremely slow to recognize the mounting opposition to war with Iraq among Americans -- in Washington and, more significantly, beyond the beltway -- the president might want to note the list of signers on this letter. Among them are not just members of the House such as Brown and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who voted against last fall's Congressional resolution authorizing the president to take steps leading to war with Iraq, but also members such as Kind, who voted for the resolution.
Noting Blix's statement that the report should not be seen as a conclusive assessment, and that European allies -- including Great Britain -- have said that Jan. 27 should not be seen as a deadline for action, Kind expressed concern about signals from the Bush administration that the date might be seen as the "final phase" of the inspection process, and hints from administration that diplomatic efforts are being rejected in favor of war preparation.
Echoing the concerns of a number of House members who voted for last fall's resolution, Kind said as he dispatched the letter to Bush, "In previous correspondence to President Bush, I stressed the importance of the administration exhausting all diplomatic measures to disarm Saddam Hussein of his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, before considering the use of multilateral force as a last resort. The letter Sherrod Brown and I have sent to President Bush today reiterates that sentiment and advocates that the administration continue to work with the international community to secure Iraq's disarmament, as well as (to) provide the U.N. weapons inspectors with the time and resources they need to effectively do their job."
Brown credited the internet activist group MoveOn.org with helping to gather signers for the "Let the Inspections Work" letter. The organization, which coordinated visits by anti-war activists to more than 450 House and Senate offices across the country last week, sent targeted emails to its 700,000 US members urging them to call their representatives and ask them to sign the letter.
Among the House members who voted for the Oct. 10 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq who signed the letter were Kind, a leader of the moderate New Democrat Network, and Californians Henry Waxman, Adam Schiff and Ellen Tauscher, Florida's Bob Wexler, Iowa's Leonard Boswell, Massachusett's Martin Meehan, Maryland's Albert Wynn, New Jersey's Pascrell, and New Yorkers Nita Lowey, Carolyn Mahoney, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Engel and Michael McNulty, and Washington state's Adam Smith.
The overall list of signers released by Brown's office included: Abercrombie, Allen, Baca, Baird, Baldwin, Ballance, Becerra, Berkley, Berry, Blumenauer, Boswell, Boucher, Boyd, Brady (PA), Brown (OH),Brown (FL), Capps, Capuano, Cardin, Carson (IN), Case, Clay, Conyers, Crowley, Cummings, Davis (FL),Davis (CA), Davis (IL), DeFazio, Delahunt, DeLauro, Doggett, Engel, Eshoo, Evans, Farr, Fattah, Filner, Frank, Gutierrez, Grijalva, Hastings (FL), Hinchey, Hoeffel, Holt, Honda, Hooley, Inslee, Jackson, Jackson-Lee, Johnson (TX), Jones (OH), Kaptur, Kildee, Kind, Kleczka, Kucinich, Langevin, Larsen, Lee, Lewis (GA), Lofgren, Lowey, McCarthy (MO), McCollum, McDermott, McGovern, McNulty, Maloney (NY), Matheson, Meehan, Meek, Meeks, Michaud, Millender-McDonald, Miller, Moran, Nadler, Napolitano, Neal, Norton, Oberstar, Olver, Owens, Pascrell, Payne, Price, Rahall, Rangell, Rodriguez, Roybal-Allard, Rush, Ryan (OH), Sabo, Sanchez (CA-39), Sanders, Schakowsky, Schiff, Scott (VA), Serrano, Slaughter, Smith (WA), Stark, Strickland, Stupak, Tauscher, Thompson (CA), Tierney, Towns, Udall (NM), Van Hollen, Velasquez, Waters, Watson, Watt, Waxman, Weiner, Wexler, Woolsey, Wu and Wynn.
"I want Bush to see that his people are against the war," declared 38-year-old Aris Cisneros, as he and his two childern joined a demonstration that filled the streets of downtown San Francisco.
Cisneros' sentiments were echoed coast to coast Saturday by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who marched in Washington, San Francisco and dozens of other communities in protest against the Bush administration's preparation for war with Iraq.
Braving freezing temperatures in Washington, tens of thousands of activists who had traveled by bus from as far away as Minnesota cheered as actress Jessica Lange declared, "The path this administration is on is wrong and we object. It is an immoral war they are planning and we must not be silenced."
"All this talk of war, all this rhetoric has been an excellent cover, an excellent camouflage, to turn back the clock on civil rights, on woman's rights, on social justice and on environmental policies," shouted Lange, who said she had come to Washington to tell the president: "We are the people. You do not speak for us."
Bush had hightailed it off to Camp David for the weekend. But the president and his aides could not have been unaware of the rising level of anti-war activism, of which Saturday's protests were merely the latest manifestation. On Thursday, the Chicago City Council voted 46-1 for a resolution expressing opposition to a pre-emptive attack against Iraq, making it the largest of more than 40 cities across the country to embrace an anti-war stance. Several days earlier, 110 officers from unions across the country had gathered in Chicago to organize US Labor Against the War with a declaration that "Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption and layoffs."
Recent national polls have tracked a steady erosion of approval ratings for the president, which last week dropped below 60 percent for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Saturday, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 53 percent of Americans believe the president has so far failed to adequately justified ordering the United States military to invade Iraq and depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "It sounds like a lot of you don't have respect for your president," joked a member of the British rock band Chumbawamba, as the group opened the Washington rally. The group debuted a new anti-war song, "Jacob's Ladder (Not In Our Name)" that complains about how "9/11 got branded, 9/11 got sold" as part of the Bush administration scheming to start a war with Iraq.
Again and again Saturday, at protests across the country, speakers described the administration's plans for launching a war against Iraq as a scheme to distract Americans from the president's domestic failures. "Bush keeps talking about weapons of mass destruction," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Washington's Plymouth Congregational Church told the rally outside the Capitol. "When I look at the White House I am much more worried about words of mass deception."
The rally that packed the National Mall in Washington was estimated by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) coalition organizers to have drawn several hundred thousand people, a number DC police failed to either refute or confirm. The San Francisco rally was said to have attracted more than 100,000 to hear Joan Baez sing anti-war songs and actor Martin Sheen declare: "We want to end our long and shameful silence here today and say 'No' to death and war. From this time forth, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be a nonviolent resistance to all violence. Let my country awake."
At least three thousand people demonstrated in Montpelier, Vermont. Several thousand people marched in Portland, Oregon. Thousands more hit the streets in Albuquerque, Tampa, Indianapolis and college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters on the Las Vegas strip hoisted a sign that read: "Elvis hates war."
The historic figure most referenced at the demonstrations was not that "king,' however, On the eve of the national holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's birth, the slain civil rights leader's commitment to peace was referenced frequently by those who knew him, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who addressed the Washington rally, to those who have followed in his tradition.
"If Dr. King was here to celebrate his birthday, Mr. Bush, he would not be inside preparing for military build up," Rev. Al Sharpton told the Washington demonstrators. "He'd be outside saying, ‘Give peace a chance."
Sharpton closed his speech to thunderous applause as he declared, "Happy Birthday, Martin – just like Bush's son is in the White House, your children are here (demonstrating) today."
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."
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 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."
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.
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.
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.