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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Preaching the Party Line

In the old Soviet bloc states, the official line of the ruling elites did not always come from the government itself. Often it was delivered by journalists who would amplify the party line with "independent" analysis and comment.

Thus, while officials dealt in vapid generalities about programs for the people, the opinion "commissars" would offer rigid defenses of the party line and demonize those who expressed even the slightest doubts.

Washington in 2003 is certainly different from Bucharest in 1953. But Americans seeking to get a flavor of the old inside-outside strategy of matching official "tolerance" for dialogue with semi-official ranting about the dangers of dissent need look no further than William Kristol's recent appearances on the Fox News Channel programs.

Kristol, the editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, is a charming, reasonably soft-spoken figure who has a good deal of influence in the Bush White House and a passionate faith in the neo-conservative fantasy that people around the world wish their countries would be invaded. Of late, Kristol has been spinning harder than White House spokesman Ari Fleischer -- pulling out all the stops in hopes of convincing Americans that the war in Iraq is going as it should and that questioners of the war's wisdom or prosecution are, at best, irrational.

Though he is a magazine editor, Kristol was quicker than Fleischer to wag a finger at reporters who might question why the war is not quite the "cakewalk" that neo-conservative commentators and Vice President Dick Cheney predicted. Defending the administration, Kristol grumbled during a Fox appearance last week that, "They're doing fine, and remember the media does not represent the country. I want to repeat, there is no empirical evidence today that Americans are impatient for the end of this war."

Readers of the Weekly Standard got an extended version of Kristol's remarks. "Here's the good news about the American people: They're not affected by the silly mood swings of much of the media," he explained. "Americans outside newsrooms and TV studios understand that wars are often difficult and usually unpredictable."

If Mr. Kristol were to leave the comfortable confines of the Washington Beltway, he might be surprised to learn that a lot of Americans actually believed the pre-war spin of the Bush administration and neo-conservative commentators about how Iraqis were anxiously awaiting invasion, er, liberation.

Even on a short trip to America, Kristol would find plenty of empirical evidence of impatience, uncertainty, anger and questioning as regards the progress of this war. I've spent the past few days at country crossroads, in small towns and in big cities across the upper Midwest and I have heard intense discussions about this war's unexpected and troubling turns, about whether the Bush administration and its neo-conservative cheerleaders presented an "unrealistic" picture of what was coming, and about whether the best way to support the troops might be to bring them home.

The discussions on Fox News' "Special Report" and CNN's "News Night" may still be on the silly side. But the conversations in church basements in places like Viroqua, Wisconsin, have turned serious. "Did they really not know what to expect in Iraq, or did they just lie to us?" asked a teacher, summing up a line of questioning and comment I heard again and again.

Some of this shift in sentiment is captured in polling. An analysis by MSNBC of a survey conducted for that network over the weekend suggests that "while Americans support the president, the poll also found a growing unease with the progress of the war against Iraq. Nine percent of those surveyed said the war was proceeding better than expected, a drop from a poll conducted March 23, in which 25 percent expressed optimism with the war's prosecution. Conversely, 20 percent said the war was going worse than expected, a 100 percent increase from the 10 percent who expressed misgivings in the March 23 poll."

The MSNBC report adds that "Americans are largely split on whether the Bush administration properly assessed both the strength of the Iraqi military response and the support of the Iraqi people for President Saddam Hussein. The latest poll found that 48 percent thought the administration did underestimate the Iraqi military, while 46 percent did not. When it comes to the solidarity of Iraqis behind Saddam, polling was split down the middle: 45 percent thought the administration underestimated Saddam's popular support, and 45 percent did not."

In the African-American community -- which is paid scant attention by national media -- anecdotal evidence and polling suggest there is heightened concern about the administration's credibility and the wisdom of this war. According to a new Gallup Poll, 68 percent of African-Americans now oppose the war.

"Blacks are not willing to feel obliged to support the president's agenda," explains Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. "They are much more likely to feel that (Bush) is engaging in disruptive policies at home and using the war as a means of shielding himself from criticism on his domestic agenda."

That skepticism is healthy in a democracy. And my sense after spending a good deal of time in recent days with African-Americans and white Americans, Democrats and Republicans, city folks and rural folks, is that it is far more widespread than our neo-conservative commissars would have Americans believe.

'Shoot Movies, Not Iraqis'

Well, we can rest assured that the Academy Awards voting is not rigged.

Going into Sunday night's Oscars' ceremony, it was a safe bet that, if the people who run the movie-industry's annual prize patrol had their druthers, antiwar filmmaker Michael Moore would not have gotten anywhere near a microphone. Moore, who wore a badge reading "Shoot Movies, Not Iraqis," when he accepted an Independent Spirit Award the night before, had promised that if he won an Oscar he would use his acceptance speech to make an issue of Bush's war. With right-wing talk radio hosts and members of the Congressional Yahoo Caucus already ranting and roaring about unpatriotic celebrities, the pressure was on to avoid controversy.

But, to a greater extent than just about anyone in Hollywood, Moore embraces controversy. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters who decided the winner of the best documentary feature competition embraced Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," a hilarious and haunting examination of gun violence, poverty and the media in America. The Academy voters gave the rabble-rousing filmmaker, author and activist an Oscar for his documentary -- as well as an opportunity to deliver 45 seconds of "message" to the world.

Moore took the stage, and immediately took after Bush and the war in Iraq.

Surrounded by his fellow nominees in the best documentary category, Moore announced, "They're here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it's the fiction of duct tape or (the) fiction of Orange Alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush."

As the packed auditorium at Hollywood's Kodak Theater erupted with a wild mix of applause and booing, Moore yelled: "Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you." He closed by noting the international opposition to the US attack on Iraq -- which includes everyone from religious leaders to country music stars. Addressing Bush, Moore said, "Any time you got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up."

Moore's was not the only antiwar voice heard at what may well have been the most politically-charged Academy Awards ceremony ever. Dozens of stars wore peace pins and Artists United to Win Without War badges. As he introduced a song from the film "Frida," which tells the story of radical artist Frida Kahlo, actor Gael Garcia Bernal interrupted his scripted remarks to say, "The necessity for peace in the world is not a dream. It is a reality, and we are not alone. If Frida was alive, she would be on our side, against war."

Actress Barbra Streisand defended free speech rights. Actress Susan Sarandon flashed a peace sign as she appeared on the stage. Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, an outspoken foe of the war who won the best original screenplay award for his film "Talk to Her," dedicated his Oscar "to all the people that are raising their voices in favor of peace, respect of human rights, democracy and international legality." And Nicole Kidman, who won the best actress Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," spoke of the pain of "families losing people" in a time of war.

Actor Adrien Brody, who won the best actor Oscar for his performance in the Holocaust-themed film "The Pianist," expressed his great joy at the unexpected honor. He then insisted on a bit more time to say, "I am also filled with a lot of sadness tonight because I am accepting an award at such a strange time. And you know my experiences of making this film made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanization of people at times of war. And the repercussions of war. And whatever you believe in, if it's God or Allah, may he watch over you and let's pray for a peaceful and swift resolution."

Accepting the best supporting actor award for his role in the film "Adaptation," actor Chris Cooper closed his speech with a succinct message: "In light of all the troubles in the world, I wish us all -- peace."

Against the Hijacking of Patriotism

"In all good conscience, I cannot and will not vote for a resolution that supports and endorses a failed policy that led us to war," declared US Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, as he explained why he could not join most members of Congress in backing what Republican leaders on the House of Representatives cynically described as a simple "support our troops" resolution.

The resolution, which passed the House by an overwhelming margin Friday morning, did express support for soldiers who have been ordered into combat in Iraq, and for the families of young men and women who wear the uniform of the United States in a time of war. But those sentiments came wrapped in a highly partisan expression of "unequivocal support . . . for [President Bush's] firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq." After a failed attempt by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to extract the more extreme cheerleading language – perhaps by paralleling the more reasoned wording of the resolution that passed the Senate 99-1 on Thursday – the measure passed the House by a vote of 392-11, with 22 members voting "present."

Many of the House Democrats and Republicans who opposed the October "use of force" resolution that the administration used as justification for launching the war expressed discomfort with Friday's "unequivocal support" statement. But most, including Pelosi, backed it.

The bulk of the opposition to the measure came from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Lewis, the civil rights movement hero who is frequently referred to as the conscience of the Congress. An angry U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, said, "I trust the American people to see through this attempt to coerce endorsement of his preventive war doctrine."

The ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving African-American member of Congress, Conyers has been outspoken in expressing Constitutional concerns about the president's decision to launch the war. "What I'm telling my colleagues in Congress and citizens is that we must continue to protest this illegal and unconstitutional war," argues Conyers. "The president has no authority to do what he's doing."

On the 11 House Democrats who voted against the "unequivocal support" resolution, eight were members of the Congressional Black Caucus: Conyers; Ohioan Stephanie Tubbs Jones; Californians Barbara Lee, Diane Watson and Maxine Waters; New Yorkers Charles Rangel and Edolphus Towns; and Virginian Bobby Scott. They were joined by California Democrats Mike Honda and Pete Stark, as well as Washington state's Jim McDermott.

Fifteen members of the CBC, including Lewis, CBC chair Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and CBC vice-chair Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, voted present. They were joined by seven other House members, including leaders of the anti-war block in the Democratic caucus, such as Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. In addition to Lewis, Cummings, Johnson and Kucinich, "present" votes came from California's Sam Farr; Florida's Corrine Brown; Indiana's Julia Carson; Missouri's William Clay Jr.; Maryland's Elijah Cummings; Illinois' Danny Davis, Jesse Jackson Jr., Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky; Michigan's Carolyn Kilpatrick; Minnesota's Martin Olav Sabo; New Jersey's Donald Payne; New York's Gregory Meeks and Major Owens; North Carolina's Mel Watt; Ohio's Sherrod Brown; and Texans Sheila Jackson-Lee and Lloyd Doggett. The single Republican to vote against the resolution was Texan Ron Paul.

The House members who opposed the resolution or voted "present" went out of their way to express sympathy for soldiers and their families. But many also expressed outrage at the determination of House Republican leaders, particularly Majority Leader Tom DeLay, D-Texas, to play politics with the matter.

California's Diane Watson, a former U.S. ambassador to Micronesia, summed up those sentiments after voting against the resolution.

,"As our troops endure the risks of battle in Iraq, we send to them our thoughts and prayers for their success and safe return. This is a time for all Americans to join in sending a clear message of support for our men and women in uniform," explained Watson. "That is why I am saddened and angered that the House Republican leaders would abuse an opportunity to show our troops support in order to make an overtly political statement. Rather than introduce a simple bill supporting our troops, House Republicans forced us to vote up or down on a resolution that endorses the President's mishandling of diplomacy and heedless march toward war."

Watson said Republicans "hijacked this resolution for their selfish political purposes."

"I support the troops," she added. "But I will not be coerced into endorsing the President's failure to resolve the Iraq dispute peacefully. We are not at war because it is necessary. We are at war because the President failed to find a diplomatic solution to this problem."

Rachel Corrie's Echo

In the last note that 23-year-old American college student Rachel Corrie wrote to her father from a Palestinian community on the Gaza Strip, she thanked Craig Corrie for stepping up his antiwar activism in the United States and urged him to continue speaking out against a US-led attack on Iraq. Four days later, on March 16, Rachel was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian physician's home. Even as he and Rachel's mother mourned the death of their daughter, they carried out her wish Wednesday on the terrace of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC.

With three Democratic members of Congress from Rachel Corrie's homestate of Washington -- Jim McDermott and Brian Baird, who voted against the October resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, and Adam Smith, who voted for it -- standing behind them, Craig and Cynthia Corrie read a statement that poignantly added their daughter's voice to the chorus of corncern regarding the Bush Administration's launch of a preemptive war with Iraq.

"We are speaking out today because of Rachel's fears about the impact of a war with Iraq on the people in the Occupied Territories. She reported to us that her Palestinian friends were afraid that with all eyes on Iraq, the Israeli Defense Forces would escalate activity in the Occupied Territories. Rachel wanted to be in Gaza if that happened," explained Cynthia Corrie. "In the last six weeks, Rachel became our eyes and ears for Rafah, a city at the southern tip of Gaza. Now that she's no longer there, we are asking members of Congress and, truly, all the world to watch and listen."

The Corries expressed particular concern for international activists and Palestinians who are seeking to prevent home demolitions, as Rachel Corrie was on the Sunday she was killed. "We are asking members of Congress to bring the US government's attention back to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to recognize that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is an overwhelming and continuous act of collective violence against the Palestinian people," said the Corries. "We ask that military aid to Israel be commensurate with its efforts to end its occupation of the Palestinian Territories and to adhere to the rules of international law."

Rachel Corrie, who was due to graduate this year from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was a longtime activist on environmental, social justice and peace issues. Before traveling this winter to the Gaza Strip to join International Solidarity Movement protests against the tactics used by the Israeli military in Palestinian refugee camp, she was active in Olympia's antiwar movement. Her parents said they had learned from Rachel that they must speak out loudly against violence. "Rachel's brutal death illustrates dramatically the madness of war," explained Craig Corrie, an insurance actuary.

Rachel Corrie's parents are not the only ones being inspired to action by her death. Baird, the congressman who represents the Olympia area, said he would introduce a House resolution calling for an investigation by the US State Department of Corrie's death. "I am a strong supporter of Israel, but that doesn't mean you look away," said Baird. "It is incumbent for our State Department to conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation" of the incident, added Baird, who described the circumstances of Corrie's death as "profoundly troubling to me" and said "I think people should be held accountable."

Baird ripped into conservatives who have criticized Rachel Corrie for placing herself in harm's way as part of a political protest. "To suggest a nonviolent person should be run over by a bulldozer because she said and did things we don't agree with, I find that morally repugnant," argued the congressman. "This is not just about Israeli policy, this is about Israeli conduct against an unarmed American citizen engaged in nonviolent action."

McDermott echoed the call for an investigation and for respect of Rachel Corrie's nonviolent activism, saying, "We must look at this event in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. A girl took action against a policy (home demolitions) that needs to have the light of day shown upon it."

A War Begun in Failure

It appears that George W. Bush will get his war. But it will be a war begun in failure. Even as Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders in the United States dutifully signed up with promises of support or silence regarding a war many of them know to be unnecessary, the blunt reality is that this American president has failed to convince the world of the need for a war with Iraq.

The president's dramatic defeat in the court of international public opinion was acknowledged Monday, when the administration abandoned its doomed effort to win a go-ahead from the United Nations Security Council for warmaking.

That rejection of diplomacy was met with a diplomatic response from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who telegraphed his frustration with a read-between-the-lines statement to the effect that, "If the action is to take place without the support of the Council, its legitimacy will be questioned and the support for it will be diminished." Others were not so gentle in their assessment.

Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair abandoned their attempt to get a new UN resolution, said Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the French ambassador to the UN, because the argument for war was unconvincing. "It (the resolution) did not get the votes because the majority of the UN and, I would say the majority of people in the world, do not think it would be right to have the Council authorize the use of force," he explained.

It was not just the French who noted the collapse of the Bush Administration's diplomatic initiative.

The leader of the British House of Commons, Robin Cook, who quit Blair's Cabinet to protest the Prime Minister's commitment of British troops to the US cause, articulated the reasoned view of that failure when he argued on Tuesday that: "The harsh reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading member. Not Nato. Not the EU. And now not the security council. To end up in such diplomatic isolation is a serious reverse. Only a year ago we and the US were part of a coalition against terrorism which was wider and more diverse than I would previously have thought possible. History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition."

In the United States, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, who may be the closest thing the current Congress has to an opposition leader, said, "The President's decision to push our nation, and the world, to the brink of war, in the face of intense international opposition, and without UN approval is a failure by this Administration to exercise world leadership and a grave mistake. The Administration's decision to withdraw its resolution from the United Nations Security Council is a dramatic admission of its failure to convince the world of its case against Iraq."

Despite months of cajoling, conniving and, when all else failed, behind-the-scenes offers of economic aid and political consideration, the Bush Administration could not convince the chief target audience -- Security Council members -- that there was sufficient legal or moral justification for war at this time. To wit:

* The president and his aides built their case for war on a "foundation" of discredited data, including reports of supposed Iraqi "threats" that turned out to have been misread, falsified or, in the case of a key British document, reliant upon out-of-date information culled from the Internet.

* The president and his aides repeatedly attempted to establish a connection between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network, yet they never succeeded in doing so. The unrelenting focus on finding such a linkage undermined the Administration's broader argument for war. It became clear to the international community that if there was the slightest shred of evidence, the administration would have produced it. And they were never able to do so.

* The president refused to perform basic diplomatic duties. In particular, he failed to maintain personal contact with leaders of countries that questioned his stance - especially French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Neither the president nor Secretary of State Colin Powell engaged in the sort of international travel and one-on-one communication that former President George Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker used to build coalition support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The mumbles, stumbles and bumbles that characterized the Bush Administration's approach to the question of how best to disarm Iraq served to isolate the White House from leaders with whom Bush thought he had built solid personal relationships, such as Russia's Vladimir Putin and Mexico's Vicente Fox. And it has severely strained relations with historic US allies such as Germany and China. The veteran French journalist Gérard Dupuy used a physical metaphor to explain the diplomatic reality. "In the end, Mr. Bush finds himself backed up by the only two leaders who have stuck by him from the beginning - Mr Blair and (Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria) Aznar," noted Dupuy, as he described the one-hour "summit" on an island in the Azores at which the determination was made to reject diplomacy. "Their meeting on an American base lost in the immensity of the Atlantic neatly symbolises the isolation of a president who has fallen victim to his own mediocrity."

Nothing that the president said in Monday night's televised address to the nation, and the world, changed the fact that George W. Bush has entered the international arena and stumbled. Badly. His ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam - leave the country or face the "serious consequences" mentioned in U.N. Resolution 1441 - made war seem inevitable.

If war comes, however, it will not be the war that any thoughtful American president could have wanted. Rather, it will be a misguided mission pursued by a troublingly small "coalition of the willing" - with most coalition "partners" there against the will of the people in their countries.

A wiser president might have refused to go ahead without having convinced more of the world. Then again, a wiser president would not have pursued this path in the first place.

After all, the point of diplomacy is not to wage an unrelenting campaign for an unpopular result. The point of diplomacy is to propose action, open a dialogue about the plan and then to refine and improve the approach until the theoretical becomes the possible. It is about winning the faith of others.

George W. Bush leads the world's remaining superpower. That position places great responsibilities on his shoulders. The greatest of these is to engage seriously and sincerely in the diplomatic process that allows for the collective wisdom of many nations to inform the actions of the United States.

President Bush has failed to meet that responsibility. He has let his country down. He has let his world down. The Spanish newspaper El Pais said it best in an editorial that read, "Diplomacy has ended because the US president has had enough of negotiating..."

Harkin Stumps for Peace

No one has made life on the campaign trail more difficult for several of the frontrunning candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination than US Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Last October, Harkin joined Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt in voting for the resolution that authorized President Bush to take military action against Iraq. But, last week, Harkin admitted that he has been wrong to believe the Bush Administration was serious about exploring diplomatic alternatives to war.

If Congress were to vote again, Harkin said, he would oppose the resolution. "I'm not going to be fooled twice," the Iowan told hometown media in Des Moines. "As I look back it sure looks like the administration was never serious about resolving the situation peacefully," said Harkin, who complained that Bush has acted "like the cowboy who rode out of Texas, all guns blazing."

One of a growing number of Congressional Democrats who voted for the October resolution but who now are critical of the president's failure to respect language that instructed the Administration to pursue diplomatic solutions, Harkin said, "In my adult life, with the exception of Vietnam, this has been the biggest failure of diplomacy I've seen."

Harkin's vote in favor of the October resolution deeply disappointed many Democrats in Iowa, where antiwar sentiment always runs high. And Harkin never suggested that he was overly happy with his vote; indeed, when he delivered the eulogy at Paul Wellstone's memorial service last fall, Harkin praised the late Minnesota senator for having the courage to vote against the resolution.

But, even if Harkin was there uncomfortably, having Iowa's most prominent national Democrat in the pro-resolution camp provided cover for Democratic presidential contenders such as Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and, above all, Gephardt, who helped organize support for the use-of-force resolution when he served as House Minority Leader. For presidential candidates who backed the resolution, it was a relief to be able to respond to questions about a possible war by saying, "Like Tom Harkin..."

Now, they are no longer "like Harkin." The Iowan says he did not mean to stir up trouble for the contenders for his party's 2004 nomination. But Harkin, himself a former presidential candidate, is too sly a political player not to have known that his statement would stir the political pot. And so it did. In fact, when several of the Democratic candidates arrived in Iowa after Harkin had revealed his new stance, the candidates found that the pot was boiling. In a state where even Republicans -- like Iowa City-area Congressman Jim Leach -- have taken antiwar stances, the sentiments among Democratic activists tend to echo those of Polk County party leader Barbara Boatwright, who says, "I'd like to hear something stronger from Congress. I wish we'd have an outcry and protest from Democratic members of Congress."

That was certainly the message Gephardt got when he arrived in Sioux City over the weekend to talk with Democratic activists whose support he will need in next January's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. The man who won the state's Democratic presidential caucuses in 1988 took a battering from people like Western Iowa Tech Community College job training director Chris Hansen. "Congress has completely addicated its duty," Hansen told Gephardt at a gathering of Woodbury County Truman Club members. "You've given up the final check and balance on this thing."

Gephardt made a determined effort to steer the conversation toward domestic issues -- such as education and health care -- chosen to illustrate areas of agreement with the roughly 40 Democrats who had gathered to hear him. But it was to no avail. "If we're going to go to war, shouldn't Congress fulfill its constitutional duty and declare that war?" inquired Tom Whitmore, a veteran Democratic activist in the Sioux City area.

Gephardt, who said he would "stand behind my vote" on the October resolution, rejected talk about the need for a new vote by Congress. "If you're saying you want to pass a resolution that says (the US) can't do anything if we can't get the whole UN wound up behind us, then you're really turning decision-making on a very important security matter over to the United Nations. I don't want to do that."

Gephardt's unwavering stance puts him in the camp of Lieberman, who pretty much parrots the Bush line on Iraq, and Edwards, who apologetically tells Iowa Democrats that his position is a matter of "conscience" and then struggles to shift the discussion to domestic issues. On the other side are two candidates who voted against the October resolution, House Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and former Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida, and three candidates sharpyl critical of war, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

In the middle, and thus in the most difficult position following Harkin's shift, is Kerry. When the Massachusetts senator arrived in Iowa Sunday for a series of campaign appearances, he was grilled on his views on Bush's rush to war. Asked directly by the Des Moines Register, Kerry was reported to have "stopped short" of saying that he too regretted his vote last October. "What I do regret is that this Administration has not lived up to the standards of diplomacy set forth in the resolution," said the man who is seen by many Democrats as the frontrunner for the party's presidential nod. "The president's diplomacy has been completely lacking."

Aside from his murky stance on the question of whether his vote for the "use of force" resolution was a good one, Kerry's comments on Bush sound similar to those of the candidate who most frequently criticizes Kerry for backing the resolution: Dean. In Des Moines, Kerry was particularly aggressive, arguing that, "The greatest position of strength is by exercising the best judgement in the pursuit of diplomacy, not in some trumped-up, so-called coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted, but in a genuine coalition."

That also sounds a lot like Harkin, save for the Iowa senator's acknowledgement that Congress was wrong to give up so much authority to Bush. Harkin is a smart politician, who knows his state well. Indeed, as Woodbury County Democratic Party chair Al Sturgeon explained after the Sioux City session with Gephardt, "If I had a nickel for every time someone told me Congress wrote Bush a blank check, the Woodbury County Democrats would be in good shape."

Bush Nominee is Blocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Meltdown Obscures FCC Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Phil Donahue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echoing Wellstone on War, Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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