Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

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

IOWA: President Bartlet Hits the Trail

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet's name cannot be found on the list of candidates contending on Monday for votes at Iowa's first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses. But he is the star of this campaign season.

Everywhere Bartlet goes in Iowa, he draws the biggest crowds. When he steps onto a stage, people start chanting "Bartlet." Reporters hang on his every word. Children ask for his autograph. Adults want to know his thoughts about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and religion in politics.

Bartlet is, in every sense, the man of the moment.

Unfortunately, he is also a fiction.

"President Bartlet is a fantasy," explains actor Martin Sheen, who plays the character on the NBC political drama, "The West Wing." "Howard Dean is a reality."

Sheen is an enthusiastic supporter of the former Vermont governor, who is locked in a tight four-way contest going into Monday's caucuses with former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll, released Saturday morning, has Kerry with 23 percent, Dean with 22 percent, Gephardt with 19 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. That represents a slight drop for Kerry from the previous day's polling, no movement for Gaphardt and last-minute surges for Dean and Edwards.

Dean will try to improve his position Sunday, with a quick trip to Plains, Georgia, where he is scheduled to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter. Getting a blessing from the man who put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he scored an upset win here in 1976 --and who remains popular in the first-caucus state--is seen by Dean strategists as an extension of their Iowa campaigning. They hope to get a bounce on Monday, when pictures of Dean and Carter will, undoubtedly, be splashed across the front pages of caucus-day newspapers.

But Dean may end up getting just as much of a bounce from another "president."

As the caucuses approached, "West Wing's" Sheen left sunny southern California for snowy Sioux Falls, Mason City and Davenport, where he campaigned almost as vigorously as the candidate himself.

In Iowa, where campaigns that could be made or broken by Monday's voting are pulling out all the stops, celebrity backers are turning up even in the smallest towns. The candidates hope that a little star power will sway wavering Democrats in their direction.

The fast-finishing campaign of John Kerry dispatched songwriter Carole King to make the pitch for him in a Dubuque coffeehouse and an Indianola living room, where she autographed albums, played "You've Got a Friend" on the host family's piano and exclaimed that, "The beauty of this, for me, is coming into a real American town meeting." Dennis Kucinich campaigned across the state last year with country singer Willie Nelson and will close his pre-caucus campaigning by taking the stage Sunday night with a singer half Nelson's age, Ani DiFranco, in Des Moines. Even Dick Gephardt has been appearing in the closing days of the campaign with a "star" suitable to the labor-backed candidate's union hall rallies, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., the son of legendary labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.

In New Hampshire, the first primary state, filmmaker Michael Moore is expected to hit the trail for retired Gen. Wesley Clark Saturday. And there is talk that Clark might yet get the biggest of his superstar backers, Madonna, stumping on his behalf.

But only one candidate for president has a "president" working the campaign-trail as his surrogate. And, even if he is a make-believe commander-in-chief, Bartlet, er, Sheen is making the most of his association with the White House.

This veteran star of stage and screen knows exactly how to deliver an applause line.

"As the acting president of the United States, I am here to announce that next Monday, Jan. 19, is Howard Dean Day in America!" Sheen declared in Council Bluffs. He said pretty much the same thing in Cedar Falls. And in Cedar Rapids. The response was absolutely consistent: Thunderous applause.

For Sheen, however, this is not just a theatrical performance.

A veteran campaigner for peace and economic justice, the actor got involved in politics long before writer Aaron Sorkin put him in charge of the West Wing. Sheen was an outspoken foe of former President Ronald Reagan's funding of military dictators and Contra rebels in Central America in the 1980s. He has been arrested more than once in protests against weapons systems and the arms race in general. He has marched with farmworkers, trade unionists and antiwar activists. And he is no stranger to the real world of electioneering. He campaigned across the country for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. And he was one of the first prominent players in Hollywood to endorse Dean for the Democratic party's 2004 nomination.

Sheen announced his support for Dean a year ago, when the Vermonter barely rated an asterick in most polls. Like the vast majority of Dean's early backers, Sheen was attracted by the candidate's outspoken opposition to President Bush's preparations for war with Iraq. Sheen, who appeared in a MoveOn.org-sponsored television commercial encouraging Americans to lobby Congress to block Bush's invasion plans, says, "Dean was against the war when we needed someone. That's why I'm with him now."

Sheen delights in Dean's angry denounciations of "Republican-lite" Washington Democrats who have compromised with the Bush administration and the GOP leadership in Congress. Pointing to the fist-pumping, ready-to-rumble crowds at a Dean rally in Des Moines. Sheen declared, "This is the Democratic party I was born into. The party was taken away from us, and now we're getting it back."

Counting himself in with the army of Dean volunteers that has swarmed over the first-caucus state, including large contingents from surrounding states that began arriving by the busload Saturday, Sheen echoes the just-short-of-messianic language of the former Vermont governor's most fervent backers. "We've awakened a movement," he says. "And we've made this election meaningful -- a real referendum on the direction of our country."

Sheen dismisses charges that Dean is too volatile, or too extreme in his style or his stands, to beat Bush next November. "These guys in the White House are in for a surprise if they think they're going to roll over this guy," says the actor, who has no problem with Dean's much-discussed anger. "Anger moves you to justice," says Sheen. "It's a great energy, and it allows you to do great good."

So, is Dean comparable to President Bartlet?

"There are a lot of similarities," Sheen says, noting that the president he plays on TV is, like Dean, a New Englander with a penchant for making bold, often controversial, statements. But, he adds, "President Bartlet is a fictional character. Howard Dean is a reality. And that makes all the difference in the world."

IOWA: Moseley Braun and Dean

DES MOINES -- When the Rev. Al Sharpton tore into Howard Dean's minority hiring record during Sunday's Iowa Black and Brown Forum debate here among the Democratic presidential contenders, Carol Moseley Braun moved immediately to defend Dean. As soon as Sharpton finished pressing Dean to explain why he had not appointed more people of color to top positions during his long tenure as governor of Vermont, Moseley Braun urged the other African-American candidate to tone down his criticisms. "The fact of the matter is, you can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other," she said, in what amounted to a public rebuke for Sharpton. "People cannot afford a racial screaming match."

At the time, Moseley Braun's intervention sounded like nothing more than one of the grace notes she regularly added to the debates between the Democratic contenders. Though her campaign never had the money or the organization needed to be a serious competitor -- even her own campaign manager acknowledged that she would not win the nomination -- the former US Senator from Illinois and US Ambassador to New Zealand won consistently high marks for her command of the issues and for her determination to keep the contest focused on the task of beating George W. Bush.

While the defense of Dean last Sunday was in character for Moseley Braun, who has often played a peacemaker role during the campaign, it also provided an indication of Moseley Braun's regard for the man who once shared her low poll numbers but then took off to become the race's presumed frontrunner. Behind the scenes, that regard was flowering into a decision by Moseley Braun to fold her campaign and make a high-profile endorsement of Dean.

According to aides to Moseley Braun and Dean, the former senator took the former governor aside after Sunday's debate and indicated that she was thinking about dropping out and throwing her support to Dean. It was a good fit ideologically, as the two candidates have taken similar stands against the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration's economic agenda. And Moseley Braun has noted the success of Dean's efforts to attract support from leading political figures in the African-American community.

Conversations between the two candidates continued over the next several days, leading up to Moseley Braun's decision on Wednesday to leave the race. On Thursday, she flew to Iowa to appear with Dean at a rally on his last major swing through the state before Monday's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Asking her backers to instead stand with Dean supporters at the caucuses, Moseley Braun declared, "Governor Dean has the energy to inspire the American people, to break the cocoon of fear that envelopes us and empowers president Bush and his entourage from the extreme right wing, and he has a program to put our country back on track to tax fairness, job creation, balanced budgets and an economy that works for everyone regardless of sex or race. He has the experience to know that state and local and national government have to cooperate and collaborate, and end the destructive game of monetary musical chairs that creates unfunded mandates and failing schools. He understands that a real war on terrorism starts with putting the domestic security of the American people first. He can "work well with others" around the world and craft a foreign policy that is neither arrogant nor preemptive, but that begins with respect and builds on alliances. He takes seriously our stewardship of the planet and our environmental responsibilities."

For his part, Dean was full of praise for Moseley Braun. "She's a principled person. We just hit it off. I like her a lot," he told reporters as he finished the first leg of a statewide bus tour of Iowa that he hopes will help him prevail in the caucuses that kick off the process of selecting the delegates to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Dean is locked in what looks to be an increasingly tight four-way race in Iowa, with a new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll showing him in a statistical tie with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and North Carolina Senator John Edwards – the poll has Kerry at 22 percent, Dean at 21 percent, Gephardt at 21 percent, and Edwards at 17 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Dean declared that the Moseley Braun endorsement was "going to be a big help to us." On the face of it, that sounds like an empty boast. Moseley Braun has little organizational strength in Iowa, and has only been polling at around 1 percent there. However, in a race as close as the Iowa contest appears to be, it certainly will not hurt Dean to gain the support of the only woman and one of only two African-American contenders in the race. At a point when many Democrats in Iowa are trying to determine which candidate would be the strongest contender nationally, the Moseley Braun endorsement serves to highlight the significant support Dean has attracted from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other prominent players in states where, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, support from African-American voters is critical to winning not just the nomination but the presidency.

Beyond Iowa, Moseley Braun's endorsement could help Dean as he continues to line up support among core constituencies of the party. Moseley Braun, who promised to take the "Men Only" sign off the White House had the endorsements of the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus; her exit may free up support for Dean from some feminists who had held back from making a public endorsement while there was still a woman in the race. Additionally, Moseley Braun retains better name recognition in her home state of Illinois than a number of the Democratic contenders. While there were few predictions that she would win the March 16 Illinois primary, Moseley Braun could well have attracted her largest measure of support on her home turf, especially in the predominantly African-American precincts of Chicago where she has been politically active for three decades.

With the former senator now backing the Vermonter, and with endorsements of his campaign rolling in from prominent Illinois progressives like US Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson Jr., Dean's prospects are looking better and better in Illinois, which will hold one of the last big contests on the road to the nomination. If the Democratic competition turns into a long haul, the late-in-the-game primary in Illinois--which will send one of the largest delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Boston--could prove to be a significant test. And it is there, as much or more than in Iowa, where Moseley Braun's endorsement could turn out to be the "big help" Dean declared it to be.

DC VOTE: Dean's Real; So Is Sharpton

While the fact was little noted, voting has finally begun in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than 43,000 voters in Washington, DC, participated in a non-binding primary Tuesday and, though most of the leading Democratic contenders chose to skip the contest, the results still provided some important insights regarding the race. To wit:

1.) HOWARD DEAN'S APPEAL IS FOR REAL. The former Vermont governor won 43 percent of the vote in a primary that saw a higher turnout than past presidential primary voting in the District of Columbia. Dean easily outdistanced other candidates who put more time and energy into the DC contest. And he showed strength across a city where African-American voters form a substantial majority, offering him an opportunity to counter the claims that he lacks the record and the style to appeal beyond his initial base of support among young, white, middle-class activists. Dean made note of that fact in a call Tuesday night to a gathering of several hundred enthusiastic supporters at the Lucky Bar in Northwest Washington. Echoing the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign theme from insurgent races for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, Dean told his cheering backers, "We're going to build a rainbow coalition to take over this country for the people who own it."

Dean's win in the DC vote has meaning beyond the fact that the former governor of a small, rural state collected significant support from urban voters. Dean was the only one of the supposed frontrunners in the race who allowed his name to remain on the DC ballot. That was a risk, because party leaders succeeded in pressuring Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman to pull out of a DC primary that would choose no delegates but that was condemned by officials in Iowa and New Hampshire as an affront to the carefully guarded "first-in-the-nation" status of those two states. It was also a risk because, with the Iowa vote coming next Monday, Dean was not going to be able to do much personal campaigning in the district as "advisory" primary approached.

Dean chose to remain in the running in DC as part of a 50-state strategy that puts an uncommon level of faith in prominent local backers and volunteers to deliver the votes on election day.

In DC, as Dean strategists had hoped, the campaign's much-vaunted volunteer army took up the slack and put on a genuine campaign. Prominent members of the city council – including Jack Evans, who fought to assure that voters in the nation's capital would cast the first ballots in this year's presidential race -- endorsed Dean. More than 30,000 Dean appeals were mailed to the most likely voters. Blue-and-white "Dean for President" signs appeared on utility polls and vacant building fronts. Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democratic representative from neighboring Maryland, headlined a rally that drew several hundred people to a downtown church on the Saturday before the voting. And on election day, at many polling places in the city, the only person handing out leaflets was a Dean backer.

The Dean campaign's ability to translate enthusiastic volunteers into an effective campaign organization was on display in DC. That fact is not to be underestimated as the former governor, who is battling to hold onto poll leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, ponders the prospect of a long campaign that will be fought out in many states that will not get the same level of candidate face time that is accorded to early caucus and primary states.

2.) THE REV. AL SHARPTON, THOUGH HE HAS LITTLE MONEY AND ORGANIZATION, COULD YET END UP INFLUENCING THE COURSE OF THE CONTEST FOR THE DEMOCRATIC NOD. The New York civil rights activist campaigned hard in DC, and he did well. Sharpton ran second to Dean, trailing the frontrunner by only about 3,500 votes. Sharpton secured more than a third of the vote, and easily won many of the city's most economically disadvantaged precincts. As in his previous races for US Senate in New York state and for mayor of New York City, Sharpton showed that he knows how to parlay free media and energetic street campaigning into a solid showing in urban areas.

Sharpton, who has aggressively criticized Dean's weak record of hiring people of color during his years as governor of Vermont and who has challenged African-American elected officials for jumping on the Dean bandwagon, was a serious competitor in DC. By investing a small amount of money, $50,000, in radio advertising on stations with large African-American audiences, and by investing a substantial amount of his own time – Sharpton campaigned across the city until the polls closed Tuesday -- he ran up a more-than-respectable vote total. Indeed, if he had been able to attract the 12 percent of the vote that went to the other prominent African-American candidate, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Sharpton could have upset Dean in Tuesday's voting. That would have proven to be embarrassment to the frontrunner in the run-up to Monday's Iowa voting.

Don't underestimate that Sharpton, a dogged competitor who can keep running with only a fraction of the money other campaigns require, could yet embarrass Dean and other leading contender as the campaign moves to states with large minority populations. The first test will be in South Carolina, where Sharpton continues to poll well in advance of that state's Feb. 3 primary. But Sharpton's real show of strength is likely to come in New York's March 2 voting, when he could tip the balance in a race between Dean and another candidate, perhaps retired Wesley Clark or John Edwards, who emerges as the "anti-Dean" for which much of the Democratic party establishment has been searching.

"For someone who never held political office to get a third of the vote in the nation's capital is a huge story," Sharpton declared Tuesday night. Actually, it didn't turn out to be that huge a story. Most of the media attention remained focused on the fight for Iowa. But Sharpton's showing serves as a reminder that his run could yet shape the story of the 2004 race.

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."

Syndicate content