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John Nichols

John Nichols

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IOWA: John Edwards' moment

DES MOINES -- The big news story out of Iowa last week told of the endorsement by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Harkin, Iowa's senior Democrat, has a record of picking winners in the caucuses -- he was Al Gore's most prominent backer in 2000 -- and his support for the frontrunner was read by many as another indication that Dean may be unstoppable as Iowa's January 19 caucuses approach.

But Harkin's endorsement should not have come as a huge surprise. He's a fiery populist whose style and sentiments pretty much parallel those of Dean's campaign. And he is also a smart politician, who was unlikely to go a different direction than the core of grassroots party activists who form his own base and who have been Dean's most enthusiastic backers.

A more surprising endorsement came to light when Sunday editions of the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, began circulating around the state. The Register, one of the few major daily newspapers that maintains a reasonably consistent left-of-center editorial stance, could easily have gone for Dean. But it didn't. Nor did the paper back former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who hails from neighboring Missouri and who polls suggest is running closest to Dean. The Register's editorial board even skipped over the race's "safe" liberal, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who has secured several other newspaper endorsements in recent days.

The Register, which does not always pick the winners of the Democratic caucuses but which always influences the process, gave its endorsement to North Carolina Senator John Edwards. "The more we watched him, the more we read his speeches and studied his positions, the more we saw him comport himself in debate, the more we learned about his life story, the more our editorial board came to conclude he's a cut above the others," declared the Register's editorial, which was the talk of Iowa on Sunday. "John Edwards is one of those rare, naturally gifted politicians who doesn't need a long record of public service to inspire confidence in his abilities. His life has been one of accomplishing the unexpected, amid flashes of brilliance."

The endorsement came at precisely the point when Edwards needed it. His campaign, which never seemed to gain traction during the long run through 2003, has finally started to get good marks. Of all the self-promoting books written by the candidates -- or, in a most cases, ghostwritten for them -- Edwards produced the finest text, an unexpectedly moving recollection of his legal career titled Four Trials. The first-term senator, who did not seem in the early stages of his campaign to be ready for the primetime of presidential politics, has in recent weeks drawn best-of-show reviews for his debate performances. And he is translating his debating prowess to the stump. The former trial lawyer has perfected a closing argument for Iowa voters that is a William Jennings Bryan-style call to arms against corporate agribusiness, free trade deals that lead to shuttered factories in the heartland, and tax policies that redistribute wealth upward to a wealthy few.

Edwards went into the final week before the caucuses touting a plan to raise 10 million working Americans out of poverty, the sort of ambitious and positive policy initiative that has distinguished the senator's campaign in the eyes of observers who were once skeptical. Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, the chair of the Creative Commons project, noted in a review of Four Trails, "Edwards is the rare politician who continues to surprise, the more you learn, and surprise in the best possible way."

While the other major candidates have taken to battering one another with last- minute attacks, Edwards has reserved his fire for the fat cats -- in and out of the Bush administration. As the Iowa campaigns of Dean, Kerry and Gephardt have grown increasingly bitter, Edwards' emphasis on issues rather than personalities has drawn praise. Indeed, in his endorsement of Dean, Harkin paid tribute to Edwards' high-road approach. Harkin isn't the only one who has noticed that Edwards is running a different and, in many ways, more appealing campaign than the other prominent contenders. Indeed, Edwards appears to be making a last-minute connection with Iowa Democrats; a Reuter/MSNBC/Zogby poll released Sunday showed Dean leading Gephardt 25-23 percent, with Kerry in third place at 14 percent. But the real news was that Edwards had moved up to 13 percent, just one point behind Kerry.

If that poll is tracking the race right, the Register endorsement could well move Edwards into the upper tier of candidates, as a 1988 endorsement by the paper of U.S. Sen. Paul Simon did in that year's caucus race. The Register's argument was compelling:

"On issues, the major contenders for the nomination aren't far apart. They differ in emphasis and detail, but all have the same general thrust: Roll back some or all of the Bush tax cuts and redirect the money into health care and education. Conduct a foreign policy that is more collaborative and less bellicose. The underlying theme of the Democrats is that the government under President Bush is serving the interests of wealth and privilege, not of ordinary Americans. Howard Dean's call to "take our country back" is the rallying cry," the editorial explained. "Dean has the slogan, but it is Edwards who most eloquently and believably expresses this point of view, with his trial-lawyer skill for distilling arguments into compelling language that moves a jury of ordinary people. He speaks of there being two Americas: ‘One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks. If we want America to be a growing, thriving democracy with the strongest middle class on Earth, we must choose a different path.'"

The Register concluded its endorsement by painting Edwards as the candidate best able to draw clear distinctions between himself and Bush in a November face-off:

"If Edwards wins the Democratic nomination, voters this fall would have a choice between two men who almost perfectly embody the rival political philosophies in America today. George W. Bush and John Edwards are attractive, likable, energetic. They have about the same level of prior experience in government - and they are polar opposites," argued the Register's editors.

"Bush is from a prominent family, attended Ivy League universities, made his fortune in business and fervently believes the philosophy of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.' His policies flow from the conviction that all Americans will gain if business is largely unfettered and if investors are better rewarded.

"Edwards is from a working-class family, attended public universities, made his fortune representing ordinary people in the courtroom and fervently believes that America does best when doors of opportunity are open to anyone willing to work and get ahead. He says those opportunities are being choked off in an America today that rewards wealth, not work. Emblematic of his approach is his proposal to pay the first year's tuition to a state university or community college for any student willing to work.

"Like all the Democratic candidates, Edwards is strongly critical of Bush, but with him it tends to be a little less personal. He emphasizes his goal is not merely to replace Bush but to change America."

Edwards will not win Iowa. But he does not need to do so. If he can displace Kerry and secure a third-place finish he will get the credit for "exceeding expectations" and be able to carry on at least through the February 3 South Carolina primary, which Edwards must win if he is going to remain in the running. That there is the prospect of an Edwards surge, however, is just the latest unexpected turn in a contest that continues to defy both expectations and conventional wisdom.

Comparing Bush and a Certain Dictator

It is safe to say that Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie never met a truth he did not seek to distort. So it should come as no surprise that the lobbyist-turned-party leader has been busy this week peddling his own twisted take on the work of the activist group MoveOn.org.

What is surprising is that Gillespie, who is supposedly trying to reelect President Bush, has been working overtime to publicize comparisons of of the Republican chief executive to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Gillespie got all excited when he discovered that MoveOn.org, the highly successful internet activist group, was running a "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest that asked critics of the president to submit television advertisements designed to "engage and enlighten viewers and help them understand the truth about George Bush." MoveOn.org promised to buy airtime for the winning ad during the week of the 2004 President's State Of The Union Address.

Among the hundreds of creative commercials submitted by people from across the US were two that compared Bush to the Nazi dictator. MoveOn.org did not choose those advertisements for airing on television; indeed, the group went so far as to strike the videos of the offending commercials from its website.

But the controversial commercials still went into wide circulation nationally. Why? Because Gillespie and his minions chose to highlight them on the Republican National Committee website. For a time this week, the only place to view the comparisons of Bush with Hitler was on the RNC site. Adding insult to injury, Gillespie made the rounds of cable television talk shows in order to draw more attention to the Hitler-Bush ads. Thus, the commercials got their airing on national television not because MoveOn.org paid to put them up but because the cable networks used them to illustrate Gillespie's rants.

The RNC chief's folly eventually became so evident that the video was scrubbed from the Republican site. But you can still read the texts of the commercials on the RNC site at http://www.rnc.org/moveonvideo.htm. That text is accompanied by a rant from Gillespie, calling for MoveOn.org to apologize for initially allowing the ads to appear on its website, and demanding that the nine Democrat presidential candidates repudiate the ad comparing Bush to Hitler.

In as much as the overwhelming majority of Americans did not know about the Bush-Hitler comparison until Gillespie publicized it, it would seem that the RNC chair is the one who should be apologizing. As for public repudiation, that's not really necessary. The president should just take Gillespie aside and quietly ask the party chair to stop going on national television to highlight comparisons between Bush and a certain dictator.

Willie Nelson sings for peace, Kucinich

Dennis Kucinich still faces an uphill climb in his campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But his anti-Iraq war candidacy has already inspired better music than those of contenders who are garnering far more attention and campaign money. The New Year's weekend benefit for Kucinich at the Austin Music Hall was one of the finest campaign concerts in recent memory, and the sentiments of the stellar cast of performers was well summed up by singer Bonnie Raitt, who introduced a bluesy version of the Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth," be declaring, "Here's to free speech. Here's to fair elections. Here's to the possibility that Dennis Kucinich could win."

The Texas concert, which drew a crowd of 4,000 and was expected to raise more than $80,000 for the Kucinich campaign, showcased the success the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair has had in appealing to some of the country's most inspired and independent-minded musicians. The candidate who has been endorsed by artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Ani DiFranco brought some of his best-known backers together for a sold-out concert in Austin. Along with Raitt, a pair of younger artists with Texas roots and national reputations, Michelle Shocked and Tish Hinojosa turned in musically and politically charged performances. Tim Reynolds, guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, played. So too did Pat Simmons and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, who performed some of that group's greatest hits before being joined by Raitt for a raucous rendition of "Taking It To The Streets." The highlight of the Saturday night show came when Kucinich's most high-profile musician backer, Willie Nelson, took the stage.

Nelson, who has been talking up Kucinich's candidacy since last summer, says he was attracted to Kucinich first because of the Ohio congressman's passionate defense of family farmers -- a cause close to the heart of the country singer, who has been a core backer of the Farm Aid concerts. But, as he campaigned for Kucinich over the weekend, Nelson picked up on the anti-war message that has been central to Kucinich's run for the White House.

Nelson used appearances with Kucinich to talk about a new song he wrote on Christmas Day, "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

"(It's) only the second protest song I've ever written," Nelson said, "but it just came pouring out." Nelson, who performed his earlier protest song, the anti-war ballad "Jimmy's Road," prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said he was inspired to write the new song by Christmas morning news reports of the ongoing violence in Iraq. "There was nothing but bad news and here it was Christmas Day," Nelson recalled. "I said, 'There sure are a lot of babies dying and mothers crying,' and (Nelson's wife) Annie said, 'That sounds like a song.'"

When Nelson sat down to write the song's words, he pulled no punches. "How much oil is one human life worth?" the lyrics ask. "How much is a liar's word worth?"

Nelson joins his critique of the war and the president who launched it with a poke at the media, singing, "Now, you probably won't hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV/But if there's a time, and you're so inclined/You can always hear it from me."

Is Nelson, who achieved international fame as a self-described country music "outlaw," trying to stir things up?

"I hope there is some controversy," said Nelson, when a reporter asked whether he feared the song's biting commentary on George W. Bush's war might stir anger among country music fans who have been cheering for songs like Toby Keith's angry, war-cry, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." Added Nelson, "If you write something like this and nobody says anything, then you probably haven't struck a nerve."

The singer hopes to strike that nerve for Kucinich, whose criticism of the rush to war and its pursuit echo the bluntness of the lyrics to "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

Nelson, who put his arm around Kucinich during several Austin appearances Saturday, says, "I just like him because he tells the truth. Whether he's electable or not, who knows? But when you've got a guy you can trust, you've got a good candidate." And Kucinich, whose campaign is using pictures of Nelson wearing a "Kucinich for President" t-shirt on posters, has a good supporter in the country star.

On Saturday night, just around midnight, Nelson gave Kucinich a rousing endorsement and debuted "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth," singing:

There's so many things going on in the world/Babies dying/Mothers crying/How much oil is one human life worth?/And what ever happened to peace on earth?

We believe everything that they tell us/They're gonna' kill us/So we gotta' kill them first/But I remember a commandment/Thou shall not kill/How much is that soldier's life worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

(Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

So I guess it's just/Do unto others before they do it to you/Let's just kill em' all and let God sort em' out/Is this what God wants us to do?

(Repeat Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

Now you probably won't hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV/But if there's a time, and if you're ever so inclined/You can always hear it from me/How much is one picker's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

But don't confuse caring for weakness/You can't put that label on me/The truth is my weapon of mass protection/And I believe truth sets you free

(Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?

Remembering Joe Strummer

It will long be the fate of fans of Joe Strummer's brilliant music -- and his equally brilliant politics -- to experience a touch of melancholy as the Christmastide swells.

The heart and soul of The Clash, the pioneering punk group that became the greatest rock-and-roll band of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Strummer died from a heart attack last December 22 at age 50. Strummer's death came as a shock. But it was not just the shock of losing a radical artist who, as his last albums with his group the Mescaleros illustrated, still contained much creative juice. It was also the shock of recognition. Though Strummer always resisted the "voice of a generation" label, his death confirmed him as that voice.

When it was silenced, the sense of loss was dramatic. And it has not lessened much with the passing of a year. Indeed, as this Christmas approaches, Strummer's voice is coming at us from many new directions. And it sounds as good as ever.

Over the past year, Strummer has been well remembered. A fine new book, The Last Night London Burned (Ethical Threads), provides a tremendous amount of biographical detail, as well as haunting photos from Strummer's last London gig, a November, 2002, benefit for striking public workers in London. It is a fitting visual tribute to a man who never wavered in his commitment to economic and social justice, or in his willingness to use his music to advance the fight against racism, exploitation and needless war.

But the greatest honors accorded Strummer over the past year have not taken book form. Rather, they have been accompanied by guitar chords. Strummer's legacy has been noted again and again by rockers who understood that their fraternity had lost one of its greatest members. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and an all-star band performed The Clash's "London Calling" at the Grammy Show in February. There have since been tribute concerts in Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia and, tonight, in New York. Dozens of artists have recorded cover versions of Clash songs and Strummer's solo tunes -- the December issue of the British magazine Uncut offers two CDs featuring more than two dozen of them -- and reissues of Clash albums are appearing at a steadier rate than they ever did during Strummer's lifetime.

What is remarkable and exciting, however, is that new Strummer tracks continue to surface. The release this month of the five-CD "Cash Unearthed" collected of previously unreleased Johnny Cash tracks features a poignant version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," on which the late country singer and Strummer trade vocals. And the October release of "Streetcore," Strummer's last CD with the Mescaleros added a number of exceptional new songs to the Strummer catalogue.

The best of these is a reflective track, "Long Shadow," which Strummer wrote as a tribute to Cash. Now that both men are dead, it is as fitting a memorial to Strummer as it is to Cash. When Strummer sings, "You cast a long shadow and that is your testament," it is haunting because the words ring so true.

A year after his passing, Joe Strummer still casts that long shadow. The sense of loss remains palpable this Christmas season. But, with new Strummer songs continuing to appear, there remains, as well, a palpable sense of possibility.

Kucinich Makes Media an Issue

When Ted Koppel steered one of the most critical debates of the Democratic presidential contest toward horserace questions about endorsements, poll positions and fund raising, the host of ABC-TV's Nightline inadvertently created an opening for a serious discussion about one of the most important issues in America today: media policy. And Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich has seized that opening with a vengeance.

Koppel, served as a moderator for last week's debate in New Hampshire between the nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination in 2004. The veteran newsman's decision to focus vast stretches of last week's debate on insider questions about endorsements and polling figures rankled Kucinich, who has for some time objected to the neglect of his candidacy by most media. But he also did something else. By badgering Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun with questions that suggested they should drop out of the race, Koppel exposed the dirty little secret of network television journalists who are covering the 2004 contest: They prefer easily described, sound bite-driven contests between a handful of well-known candidates, not wide open contests with lots of candidates and lots of interesting ideas.

Journalists know that covering democracy is costly, and inconvenient. Covering coronations, in contrast, is relatively cheap and undemanding.

By seeming to complain about having to deal with such a large field of candidates, however, and by so clearly indicating which candidates he would like to see leave the competition, Koppel turned attention away from the contenders and toward the question of whether the self-serving calculations of America's television networks are doing damage to America's democracy.

After gently poking Koppel for starting the debate with a round of questions regarding Al Gore's endorsement of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Kucinich suggested that it was wrong to steer the debate toward process questions when fundamental issues -- such as the war in Iraq, trade policy and national health care -- had gone unaddressed. Koppel then came back to Kucinich with a question about whether he, Sharpton and Moseley Braun weren't really "vanity" candidates who would have to drop out because they had not raised as much money as other contenders. That's when the sparks flew.

"I want the American people to see where media takes politics in this country," the Ohio congressman said. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then talking about money. When you do that you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."

The crowd at the New Hampshire debate erupted with loud and sustained applause. And Kucinich backers say the response from around the country was equally intense. Indeed, when it was revealed later in the week that ABC had made a formal decision to cut back on its already scant coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun, activists barraged the network with emails, letters and phone calls protesting the decision. Demonstrations were held outside ABC affiliates. The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting used Koppel's questions and ABC's decision to cut coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun to focus attention on the dismal failure of the television networks when it comes to covering serious political issues.

But Kucinich was smart. He did not simply bask in the shows of support and sympathy. Rather, he used the controversy to focus attention on an issue with which he has long been associated: the fight to prevent media conglomerates from dominating the discourse in American political and cultural life. Kucinich, who has worked over the years for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Wall Street Journal newspapers, as well as a Cleveland television station, has for many years been a critic of media consolidation and commercialism. An outspoken critic of last June's moves by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, he has been an ardent backer of efforts by Senator Byron Dorgan ( D-North Dakota), Congressman Bernie Sanders, (I-Vermont), and others in Congress to reverse the FCC rule changes in order to preserve media competition, diversity and local content.

Turning the controversy over Koppel into what the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to refer to as "a teaching moment," Kucinich declared, "The response of the American people to the exchange between Ted Koppel and myself demonstrates that there is great concern about the proper role of the media in a democratic society. The American people clearly do not want the media to be in a position where they're determining which candidates ought to be considered for the presidency and which ought not to be considered for the presidency. Such practice by the media represents a tampering with the political process itself. The role of the media in this process has now become a national issue central to the question of who's running our country, and I intend to keep this issue before the American people, and I look forward to engaging America's news organizations as to what they might be able to do to be more responsive to the public concerns that are reflected in the powerful response to the issues I raised in the exchange with Ted Koppel."

Campaigning in Iowa on Sunday, Kucinich issues a detailed plan for reforming the media in America that called for:

* Breaking up the major media conglomerates in order to encourage competition and quality, as well as diversity. Kucinich wants to limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, such as radio, print, or television. He would also prohibit cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and television in the same market by a single corporation.

* Expansion of funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio, and expansion of support for community-controlled media, in order to ensure the existence of media outlets that are free of the influence of advertisers.

* Requiring broadcast and cable networks to provide substantial free air time for candidates and parties during election campaigns.

* Opening up the regulatory process so that citizens can more easily challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets that fail to provide local coverage and to direct coverage at the entire community they are supposed to serve.

* Permitting not-for-profit groups to obtain low-power FM radio station licenses. Kucinich wants to encourage the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.

* Withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Trade Organization. Media companies have been lobbying the WTO for the creation of policies that would allow trade sanctions against countries that limit foreign ownership of domestic media, establish standards for local content and fund public broadcasting.

Kucinich even has an anti-sound bite sound bite: "I don't think ABC should be the first primary. The first primary should not be on a television network."

San Francisco Showdown

San Francisco is a dot.com city, so it should come as no surprise that the two candidates in Tuesday's runoff for mayor of America's left-coast city are pretty much summed up by their websites.

The homepage of the website backing Democrat Gavin Newsom, the wealthy businessman who was groomed for the job by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown, features a great big picture of the candidate and former Vice President Al Gore seated in outrageously overstuffed easy chairs.

The homepage of Green Matt Gonzalez, the veteran public defender who forced his way into the runoff with the help of a powerful grassroots insurgency, features an invitation to attend the pre-election Punks for Matt event featuring Me First and the Gimme Gimmes at a club called Slim's.

National political pundits are swooping into San Francisco to write articles about how the December 9 San Francisco mayoral contest is a test of the relative strength of the Democratic and Green parties. It isn't. Even in San Francisco, where Green Ralph Nader actually beat Republican George W. Bush in many precincts in the 2000 presidential election, only three percent of registered voters have declared themselves to be Greens.

While Newsom would like to make the titularly nonpartisan contest a measure of party loyalty, Gonzalez has extended his appeal far beyond the Green base. Union endorsements have split between the two candidates, with many activist locals of unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) backing Gonzalez. The Green has also attracted endorsements from United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta, actors Danny Glover and Martin Sheen, 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano and even some Democratic political clubs, including the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

Perhaps most significantly, Gonzalez has attracted enthusiastic support from young people who, for the most part, eschew election booths. The election-eve punk show is not a gimmick. It's for real. Gonzalez actually appeals to punk rockers, and a lot of other people who tend to be turned off by politics.

That appeal made the contest close, even though Newsom retains significant advantages. Newsom's establishment-backed candidacy will spend close to $4 million, compared with the Gonzalez campaign's $400,000. But if Newsom wins, it will be on the "strength" of precisely the sort of politics that has cost Democrats their once-dominant position in federal, state and local politics nationally.

In San Francisco, one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic cities in the country, an uninspired Democratic campaign can still prevail. But that is no longer the case in most of the country. That's because the Democratic leaders who are pouring their money and their energy into securing a win for Newsom continue to make the same mistakes that have cost their party its focus and, possibly, its future.

Make no mistake, the Democratic Party is taking this contest between two elected city supervisors extremely seriously. Having just surrendered the California governorship to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, worried by the losses of key big-city mayoralties around the country, and fretting about the prospect that a Green win would strengthen the hand of the left-leaning third party going into the critical 2004 presidential election, the California Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee are pulling out all the stops to elect Newsom. "Of course this is an important race for the Democratic Party," says Newsom. "All eyes are on this race in the bastion of Democratic politics."

Unfortunately for Newsom, San Francisco is not merely a bastion of Democratic politics. It is a bastion of progressive politics -- particularly the sort of antiwar, anti-corporate politics that is most likely to appeal to disenfranchised young people. And Gonzalez--who quotes Sartre and Camus, helped start a small press that publishes poetry, rents a room in an apartment, does not drive a car, hangs out in the city's music clubs and the Beat Generation's City Lights bookstore, and regularly opens his City Hall office for art installations--the cool candidate in this year's race. Beneath the bohemian image, of course, beats the heart of a sound politician; indeed, Newsom backers suggest that Gonzalez, who is backed by some of the developers he has criticized, is a more of a typical politician than he lets on.

But that criticism hasn't really resonated in San Francisco, at least in part because Newsom has come across as so much more politically predictable than Gonzalez.

Newsom's by-the-book campaign, which has been defined by its ideological emptiness, its coziness with business interests and it reliance on support from party icons like US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gore, is anything but cool. And even as some polls suggest that Gonzalez has caught up with Newsom in the closing days of the campaign, the Newsom camp shows no sign of getting it. Indeed, the man the party establishment still sees as its iconic leader, former President Bill Clinton, was scheduled to jet in today for a last-minute rev-up-the-troops rally at Newsom's headquarters.

Clinton, who was last seen campaigning in California for ousted Governor Gray Davis, is a genuine star among core Democrats, in much the same way that former President Ronald Reagan is a hero to core Republicans. But in this year of appropriately impassioned anti-incumbency, turning to a former president -- even one with something of a bad-boy image -- is precisely the wrong approach.

In a city that demands at least a measure of style from its political leaders, Newsom's campaign has been so stylistically inept as to appear almost Republican in character. Of course, Newsom is not a Republican. He's got reasonably solid roots in the same San Francisco liberal tradition that produced former U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, current U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and outgoing Mayor Willie Brown. Newsom may not be as fiery as Burton or as smooth as Brown. But he is, by any measure, a mainstream Democrat. In fact, that may be the biggest burden the Newsom campaign carries.

Gonzalez backers have sought to make a big deal of the fact that Newsom has received campaign contributions from some prominent Republicans and from executives of corporations such as Bechtel, the defense contractor that was the target of last spring's raucous antiwar protests in San Francisco. But Newsom is hardly the first Democrat to gather backing from the corporate sector and to try and appeal to the not-entirely-frenzied wing of the Grand Old Party. Wasn't that the operating principle of the party as it lost first the House and the Senate in the 1990s and then the White House in 2000?

The problem for Democrats is that, if there is any place where their party ought to be edgier, more challenging of the status quo and more appealing to disenchanted voters -- especially the young -- it's San Francisco. As pollster David Binder says, "If you're living in the heartland of America and you want to be a movie star, you move to Los Angeles. If you're living in the heartland of America and you are a progressive activist and you want to change the world to the left, you come to San Francisco." If there is a candidate who captures that "change the world" sentiment, and who could teach the Democratic leadership a great deal about expanding the party's appeal, it's Matt Gonzalez. Polling shows that Gonzalez has done something most Democrats only dream of achieving: He has gotten people in their 20s and 30s interested in politics --- or, at the least, in his brand of politics.

It is not merely a matter of issues.

Like Gonzalez, Newsom is a social liberal. To the view of the Newsom camp, which continues to view the contest through a very conventional political prism, that ought to equalize the appeal of the candidates. Indeed, Newsom told the New York Times, "Only in San Francisco can you be a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-rent control and be considered conservative or moderate. I would be left on any national scale."

But, of course, Gonzalez is further left. Where Newsom personally takes liberal stands on social issues, Gonzalez quit the Democratic Party in 2000 because he was angry that the party's national candidates and platforms steered clear of the progressive agenda on social and economic issues. Like other Greens, and like a great many grassroots Democrats, he recognizes that progressives need to distinguish themselves not just on social issues but on the economic issues that define whether cities such as San Francisco will remain diverse and vibrant or simple become bastions of the rich. Gonzalez is far more willing to step on corporate toes. He supports expanded tenant protections, he wants to ban new chain stores in order to protect locally-owned businesses. He wants to use development fees to pay for child care. And, in perhaps his greatest distinction from Newsom, he supports setting the city's minimum wage at $8.50 an hour.

Gonzalez's determination to limit the ability of retail giants to impose their big-box stores on San Francisco's neighborhoods, like his promise to tax developers and big businesses, marks him as someone who is willing to challenge the status quo. And his maverick style, along with his renter status and his penchant for public transportation and, yes, his Green Party affiliation makes it it easier for those who have grown skeptical about politics to believe that he might actually remain true to his principles if elected.

The San Francisco mayoral contest ought to be seen in perspective. Gavin Newsom is not the devil in disguise. He is not a Republican dressed up as a Democrat. In fact, he is a relatively typical Democrat. Unfortunately for the Democrats, their typical standard bearers have had a hard time expanding the party's base of support in recent years. That's why, even as he has attained frontrunner status in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean has continued to eschew the centrist message and style favored by Clinton, Gore and so many prominent Democrats. Dean may be an imperfect progressive messenger, but his blunt and aggressive style has helped him reach out to a base of young and disenfranchised voters that Democrats are going to need in 2004.

The same can be said of Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a proud Green, and if he is elected he will surely emerge as a national leader for that party. But, if Democrats are smart, they will drop the petty partisanship and ask themselves why Gonzalez has done so well. Only if they take that question -- and its answer -- seriously will Democrats be able to significantly improve their party's fortunes.

McCarthy's (and Ashcroft's) Nemesis

In the summer of 1951, Senator Joe McCarthy's burgeoning red scare had intimidated not just official Washington but the nation's media. Free speech was taking a hit everywhere, but especially in McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin, where the senator had been peddling his politics of fear for years. It was in this context that John Patrick Hunter, a new reporter for The Capital Times, a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin that had frequently tangled with McCarthy, was assigned to write a Fourth of July feature story. Stuck for an idea, Hunter grabbed a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the office wall, and said to himself, "This is real revolutionary. I wonder if I could get people to sign it now."

Hunter typed the preamble of the Declaration, six amendments from the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the 15th amendment into the form of a petition. Then, he headed to a park where families were celebrating the Fourth. Of the 112 people he approached, 20 accused Hunter of being a communist. Many more said they approved of sentiments expressed in the petition but feared signing a document that might be used by McCarthy, who frequently charged that signers of petitions for civil rights, civil liberties or economic justice were either active Communists or fellow travelers. Only one man recognized the historic words and signed his name to the petition.

Hunter's petition drive became a national sensation. Time magazine, The Washington Post and, of course, The Nation cited it as evidence of the damage done by McCarthy and his 'ism to the discourse. President Harry Truman called The Capital Times to praise the paper and cited Hunter's article in a speech. Hunter and his colleagues on The Capital Times would battle McCarthy for the next six years, gathering evidence of wrongdoing and deception that would eventually embolden other journalists and help shift the political climate sufficiently to permit the Senate's censure of the red-baiting senator.

After McCarthy died in 1957, Hunter continued to champion the free speech rights of civil rights activists, antiwar protesters and anti-apartheid campaigners. Until his death this past November 26 at age 87, he maintained that it was the job of journalists -- especially those working on small-town and regional dailies far from Washington and New York -- not merely to report the news, but also to defend democracy and the liberties that underpin it. In his last years, Hunter fretted that the consolidation and homogenization of media was robbing the nation of maverick journalistic voices. And he worried a lot about the state of our civil liberties.

Even as his health failed him, Hunter could be stirred to high passion by the mention of Attorney General John Ashcroft's name. He despised the Patriot Act, the internment of immigrants and other assaults on individual liberty crafted by Ashcroft and his ilk in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He even talked about dusting off his 1951 petition and taking it out on another July 4. "The thing is to remind people that when these bastards take away anyone's freedom, we're all threatened," Hunter told me a few months before he died. "In the 1950s it was McCarthy. Now it's Ashcroft. Same fight."

Electoral Raid on Baghdad

George W. Bush's Thanksgving Day campaign stop in Baghdad said everything that needed to be said about the success of the US occupation of Iraq. The president, who likes to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a mission of liberation, traveled in secret, arrived unannounced and with plane lights dimmed, remained closeted at the heavily guarded Baghdad International Airport for 150 minutes and then hightailed it out of the country before the Iraqi people knew their liberator was among them.

It was hardly a triumphal visit. Yet, the Bush political team could count on the cheerleading squads that have taken over the so-called "news departments" of the nation's television networks to hail the tarmac tap in Baghdad as "dramatic," "courageous" and "historic." "What the president did today was show he was willing to put himself in harm's way, like the troops," chirped CNN commentator Douglas Brinkley, whose enthusiasm was echoed on every Thanksgiving night news report. ABC's World New Tonight devoted the better part of 15 minutes to breathless reporting on the trek, closing off with an apparently serious recreation of the President's not-exactly-harrowing transit from his ranch in Crawford to the airport in Waco, Texas.

For realistic reporting on the President's tour of a completely secure airport hangar in Baghdad, Americans were again forced to turn to foreign news sources. Beyond the borders of the United States, practioners of a craft called journalism treated the trip with the respect it was due. While US commentators babbled on about how the President had erased the embarrassing image of himself bundled into a flightsuit for that "Mission Accomplished" photo op in May, international reporters sought out honest assessments, such as that of Mahmoud Othman, a member Iraq's governing council. "(Bush's) visit cannot be considered as a visit to Iraq," Othman told Britain's Guardian newspaper. "It was really a visit to an American military base in the country to boost the morale of the troops." Another member of the governing council told the Guardian that the "excessive secrecy" surrounding the presidential trip could end up strengthening the image not of the US but of the insurgents opposing the US occupation. "They will be able to boast that they forced the most powerful man in the world to come in through the back door," the governing council member explained.

London's Independent newspaper referred to the Baghdad visit as a "lightning public relations strike on Baghdad" designed to provide the president "with powerful television imagery with which to launch his reelection campaign next year." In a report headlined, "The Turkey Has Landed," The Independent explained to British readers that the trip was organized "to secure valuable prime-time television coverage on Thanksgiving Day, featuring pictures of a determined president rallying his troops after a grim month in which 70 lives have been lost."

Perhaps anticipating the worshipful reporting of the US media, the Times of London simply characterized the trip as "one of the most audacious publicity coups in White House history."

If anything, the British press was generous. Beirut's Al-Mustaqbal newspaper bluntly announced, "Bush's secret visit to Baghdad opens the presidential election season." In Paris, the newspaper Liberation described the Thanksgiving Day jaunt as an "electoral raid on Baghdad" arranged because "Bush knows that Iraq could become the Achilles heel of his (reelection) campaign." Italy's La Republica characterized the President's two-and-a-half hours in Baghdad as "obviously an electoral blitz, a Hollywood style stunt of the kind we will see again and again throughout the (2004) campaign."

Madrid's El Mundo, a conservative newspaper that is frequently friendly to US policies, dismissed the presidential juggernaut as "a publicity stunt which will not solve the problem of Iraq." Barcelona's Vanguardia newspaper was even rougher, declaring that, "George W. Bush does not attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, but has dinner in Baghdad with those who dream of coming home alive."

In fairness, however, it should be noted that at least one foreign media outlet has commented favorably on Bush's travels. The only Arab journalists allowed to witness Bush's banquest in Baghdad were from the Al-Iraqiya television station. Their report was every bit as enthusiastic as the coverage that appeared on US television. It should, perhaps, be noted that Al-Iraqiya is funded by the Pentagon as part of the Iraqi Media Network (IMM), a television and radio initiative set up to provide positive news about the occupation and the US-led Civilian Provisional Authority (CPA).

Of course, as Don North, who quit his post as a trainer and adviser at Al-Iraqiya, noted, "IMM has become an irrelevant mouthpiece for CPA propaganda, managed news and mediocre foreign programs."

That's a troubling assessment of Pentagon-financed media in Iraq. What's even more troubling is that, considering the irrelevant, managed and mediocre coverage of the President's trip to Baghdad that aired on CNN, Fox, ABC and other networks, it is clear that the assessment applies as well to US media.

Tell Us The Truth!

"The truth is the truth. Not just the government's truth or the church's truth or the truth that won't upset the advertisers and stockholders but THE TRUTH and the TRUTH is that when the very institutions that we depend on to inform us and guide us omit any part of the truth for any reason whatsoever then that is called a lie." -- Steve Earle

Furious with the Bush Administration's deceptions, and even more furious with the failure of major media outlets to expose and challenge those deceits, thousands of Americans are chanting, "Tell us the truth!" Their cries are being met not with the stony silence of Washington but with a protest chorus that mixes rock, rap, folk, soul and alt-country into a call to arms.

The Tell Us the Truth Tour has set the sentiments of millions of angry Americans to music, and taken the show on the road. Traveling by bus across the eastern United States on a tour that began November 7 in Madison, Wisconsin and will finish November 24 in Washington, some of the most innovative artists in American music -- and a comrade from Britain -- are raising a ruckus about the Bush administration's push for greater media consolidation and for international economic policies that are devastating the economies of both the U.S. and its trading partners.

"Media consolidation needs smashing and globalization needs unmasking," says Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, who has joined the tour along with keyboardist Mike Mills of REM, British folk rocker Billy Bragg, genre-bending singer-songwriter Steve Earle, rapper Boots Riley of The Coup and Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers. They'll be joined at a number of later shows by singer Jill Sobule and comedian Janeane Garofalo, and perhaps by other artists. Morello, who is performing as The Nightwatchman on the tour, sums up the sentiments of the musicians who have donated their time to the effort by explaining that, "When presidents and politicians lie, it is the job of the press to expose those lies. When the press fails, the lie becomes the law. The point of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to help others make connections, and to show them that activism can change the policies of this country."

The core group kicked off the tour at the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin, where AFL-CIO President John Sweeney joked during his remarks about "opening for Billy Bragg" and a crowd of 1,700 ended the first night of the conference dancing to a version of the Chambers Brothers 1968 hit Time Has Come Today that featured Chambers and Riley trading vocals and chanting, "Now the time has come... to tell us the truth."

Bragg, who has gained international acclaim for his work with the family of Woody Guthrie to put music to lyrics that were left without tunes at the time of the folk music legend's death, helped organize the tour and has insisted from the start that the music be as strong as the message. "Bush is a serious threat, not just to America but to the world," says Bragg, who gave up a chance to join protests against the President's visit to Britain this week in order to join the tour. "We're talking about that threat, the message will get through. But this isn't a seminar. This is a show, we want people dancing, singing, getting into the music."

People are doing just that. While Bragg performs overtly political songs, such as his anti-WTO epic "NPWA (No Power Without Accountability)," he also does favorites such as "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" and "Sexuality." Earle offers up a sampling of his recent songs, including the brilliant "John Walker's Blues." Playing acoustic guitar, Morello sings new songs, some written in preparation for the tour. Riley raps and Chambers turns in brilliant blues performances. Mills even straps on a guitar and sings, trying out a great version of Macy Gray's "I Try" at some shows. Invariably, the highlights each night are the ensemble performances, featuring all the musicians. In addition to "Time Has Come Today," the group has perfected a remarkable song cycle that begins with Chambers singing Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and then slides into Bragg singing Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," samples some Marvin Gaye and then closes with the whole group joining Chambers again to sing: "People get ready, there's a train comin'/You don't need no baggage, you just get on board."

The music is so good at times that it is, indeed, easy to forget the politics. But the message never gets lost. Working with the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, Free Press, the Future of Music Coalition and Morello's Axis of Justice, the tour features at every stop information about the current fight to block Federal Communications Commission rule changes that would further media consolidation and the struggle to prevent corporations and the Bush administration from undermining workers rights, human rights and the environment by developing a Free Trade Area of the Americas. And, while the emphasis is on entertainment, the band members frequently draw the show back to fundamental, and often dramatic, messages. Morello closes his set in silence, holding a clenched fist above his head as, invariably, the crowd erupts in thunderous applause. But most nights the loudest sound of all are those chants of "Tell us the truth!" Riley says that's the signal to him that the crowds understand what is at stake, and what the struggle is about. "All we're doing is bringing people some more information, telling them how to get connected with these movements and getting them energized," says Riley.

After performing Sunday night in Atlanta (Variety Playhouse) and Monday night in Tampa (Tampa Theater), the tour will hit Miami where, on Wednesday night, it will join the People's Gala for Global Justice. The Gala, one of a number of protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Ministerial being held this week in Miami, is expected to draw more than 10,000 people. After Miami, the tour roars up the east coast to the Philadelphia area (Keswick Hall: November 21), New York (Webster Hall: November 22), Boston (Berklee Performance Center: November 23) and, finally, Washington, DC (930 Club: November24).

In Washington, the tour will perform at the 930 Club, not far from the White House. Morello says they will bring some bad news to the current occupant. "I'm certain Bush won't be reelected," explains the activist musician. "From the economy being in the toilet to American kids dying every day in a war we should never have gotten into, that's not a very solid resume. All of his personal jack-assed-ness aside, the one thing that was clear at the end of the day is that The Dixie Chicks were right. They had every right to be embarrassed that that guy is from Texas."

-- For more information on the Tell Us the Truth Tour, and information on how to obtain tickets to upcoming shows, visit the official website at www.tellusthetruth.org

-- For more information on Morello's political work, check out the www.axisofjustice.org website. For more information on Billy Bragg, go to the www.billybragg.co.uk website. For more information on Steve Earle, go to the www.steveearle.com website. All of these websites contain details regarding the Tell Us the Truth Tour.

-- With Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the media reform network that organized the National Conference on Media Reform. The Free Press website is www.mediareform.net

Refusing to Write the Blank Check

In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson sought a major supplemental appropriation to fund the rapidly expanding US presence in Vietnam, ten members of Congress said "no." The group, all Democrats, included three US Senators--Oregon's Wayne Morse, Alaska's Ernest Gruening and Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson--and seven members of the House: Californians Phil Burton, George Brown and Don Edwards, New Yorkers Bill Ryan and John Dow, Oregon's Edith Green, and a newly-elected representative from Detroit, Michigan, named John Conyers.

Of the ten, only Conyers remains in the Congress. And, on Friday, he again cast his vote against a presidential demand for the appropriation of money to fund a distant war that critics have begun to refer to as a "quagmire." A fierce critic of the Bush Administration's domestic and international policies -- Conyers likes to say, "We need a regime change in the United States" --the Congressman voted against the Bush Administration's request for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation, most of which will be used to fund the continued occupation of Iraq. "(The Administration is) adding $87 billion on top of the $67 billion already spent, and there is no end in sight," Conyers said, echoing his criticism of appropriations for Vietnam

When he voted against the Iraq appropriation, however, Conyers had a lot more company.

One hundred and thirty-seven members of the Congress -- 125 in the House and 12 in the Senate -- resisted the Administration's demand for the $87 billion. While the vote against the appropriation was insufficient to stop the war, it served as a signal that opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is more politically potent than analysts with short memories of past fights over military funding fights would have Americans believe.

Among the dozen senators who opposed the $87 billion appropriation were the chamber's two senior members, Democrats Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, and Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, both of whom supported that 1965 Vietnam appropriation. Byrd, whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war made him something of a hero to young activists, left no doubt about his feelings during Friday's debate. Comparing the Administration's promotion of the war in Iraq with Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goring's propaganda before and during World War II, Byrd declared, "The emperor has no clothes. This entire adventure in Iraq has been based on propaganda and manipulation. Eight-seven billion dollars is too much to pay for the continuation of a war based on falsehoods."

Kennedy and Byrd were joined by nine Democrats, California's Barbara Boxer, North Carolina's John Edwards, Florida's Bob Graham, Iowa's Tom Harkin, South Carolina's Ernest Hollings, Massachusetts' John Kerry, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Maryland's Paul Sarbanes. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords joined them in voting "no." Notably, Harkin, Edwards and Kerry voted for the October, 2002, resolution that Bush used as an authorization to invade Iraq.

Edwards and Kerry, both Democratic presidential candidates, have taken hard hits on the campaign trail for their support of last year's resolution. On Thursday, they sided with Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich in opposing the $87 billion spending scheme. Kucinich, the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted against the October, 2002, resolution, again helped to organize House opposition to the war.

"We must end the occupation," Kucinich, a representative from Ohio, said of the $87 billion request. "Seventy-seven percent of these funds would go for an occupation that is unjust and counterproductive. The Iraq occupation destabilizes an already turbulent region, and we should not risk the death of a single additional American soldier to perpetuate it."

In the House, Kucinich was one of 118 Democrats, six Republicans and an independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, who opposed the appropriation. The majority of House Democrats opposed the $87 billion appropriation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, joined the opposition, as did Wisconsin's David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, New York's Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Michigan's John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Conyers is also the ranking member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which provided much of the opposition to the appropriation. "We are leading this Congress and the Democratic Caucus in saying 'no' to the president," said California Democrat Maxine Waters, a key player in both the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus.

California Democrat Diane Watson, a former diplomat, summed up the sentiments of members of the Black and Progressive caucuses, when she announced, "We cannot afford to give this president another blank check to spend on his Iraq adventure when so many people are suffering through a recession here at home and when our nation's critical infrastructure needs are being neglected. My vote against the Iraq supplemental is a vote for the American people and our troops, who will continue to bear the burden of the president's failed policy."

Among the Democrats voting with Bush were former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, and Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, both Democratic presidential candidates who have been steady supporters of the war. While Gephardt and Lieberman could not bring themselves to disagree with Bush's request, six House Republicans did. Among them were moderates such as Wisconsin's Tom Petri, conservatives such as Tennessee's John Duncan Jr. and Idaho's C.L. "Butch" Otter, and consistent war critic Ron Paul of Texas.

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