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Setting up what could be the boldest challenge yet to the Bush administration's drive to pack the nation's courts with conservative judicial activists, Senate Democrats have signaled that they will mount a filibuster to block a Senate vote on the nomination of Bush favorite Miguel Estrada to serve on the powerful U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The administration and Republican operatives in Washington and around the country have waged a fierce campaign to win Senate approval for Estrada, a former solicitor general who is a favorite of movement conservatives and is widely viewed as a likely contender for a future nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. As recently as Tuesday, as the Senate entered the third day of deliberation on the nomination, the White House issued a statement from Bush demanding a quick "up or down vote on the Senate floor." When he learned of the decision by Democrats to filibuster, Bush grumbled about how "a handful of Democrats in the Senate are playing politics with his nomination, and it's shameful politics."
But it is not just "a handful of Democrats." Senate Democratic leaders say that more than 40 members will join efforts to block a vote. The delay, Democrats say, will extend at least until the White House releases information regarding Estrada's legal views. That information was repeatedly requested by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to the panel's 10-9 vote in late January to recommend approval of Estrada. The committee vote split along party lines, and was one of the first indicators that the new Republican leadership of the committee and the Senate would seek to force votes on even the most controversial judicial nominees.
Some Democratic senators have indicated that they would be inclined to vote against the Estrada nomination based on what is already known regarding the former solicitor general's right-wing positions on civil rights and corporate power issues. But Senate Minority Leader Tom Dacshle, D-South Dakota, said the primary focus of any filibuster would be to force the administration to release memoranda that the nominee wrote while he worked in the office of the solicitor general in the Justice Department.
"Until that information is provided, we will not be in a position to allow a vote to come to the Senate floor," Daschle told reporters after a mid-day meeting with Democratic senators at which a decision was made to try and block a vote on Estrada's nomination. "It is critical that the administration recognize the importance of this information and the importance of the constitutional obligation (to review judicial nominations) that we hold very seriously."
Daschle said that, after meeting with key senators, he is certain that Democrats have more than enough support to block a vote with a filibuster. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to cut off a filibuster -- where members who oppose a bill or nomination speak continually against it and employ other procedural moves in order to delay action -- and force a final vote.
No one knows how the filibuster threat will play out, especially with the Senate preparing for a recess next week. Some Senate Republicans threatened to keep the chamber in session until a final vote is taken.
"If they want to stay through the weekend, we'll stay through the weekend," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.
Republicans still hope to swing enough Democrats to their side to gain the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and force a vote.A few Democrats, including influential Louisiana Senator John Breaux, have indicated that they will side with Republicans and support Estrada. And Judiciary Committee chair Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has sought to pressure more Democrats to get in line behind a prominent Hispanic nominee. But those efforts were undermined when the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in urging rejection of Estrada's nomination.
Opposition to the nomination from leading civil rights groups -- especially those with large Latino constituencies -- is certainly influential with Democrats and some Republicans. Ultimately, however, the tipping point for Senate Democrats appears to have been Estrada's stonewalling at hearings before the Judiciary Committee and the White House's refusal to release the memoranda that effectively form the only official record of Estrada's views.
"By remaining silent Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far-right stealth nominee, a... candidate who will drive the nation's second most important court out of the mainstream."explained Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, a key Judiciary Committee member.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice (www.afj.org and www.independentjudiciary.com), a national coalition of more than 60 organizations that advocates for an independent judiciary, says the decision of most Democratic senators to work to block Estrada is a major breakthrough. But, she adds, "The administration is going to put a lot of pressure on swing Democrats to break with their leadership and support Estrada. Our job in the next few weeks is to tell the Democrats to hold firm, and to start putting pressure on moderate Republicans. This is a fight that I think we can win, but there is no question that the fight is a long way from finished."
In the White House's latest attempt to suggest that the United States has garnered significant international support for an at´tack on Iraq, President Bush met Monday with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, How´ard pledged unquestioning support for the US administration's position -- even as the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and other more skeptical lands continued their efforts to avert war.
Howard dutifully echoed Bush's recent "the-game-is-over" rhetoric: "For something serious to happen to turn around the direc´tion of this whole thing, there would have to be a total change of attitude by Iraq," the Australian declared. "It's not good enough to give a little bit. This has happened before. We're not going to play that game again."
White House stenographers, er, reporters scribbled notes on Howard's comments and proclaimed Australia to be fully in the US camp -- just like Estonia and Albania. What they failed to note is that Howard is not speaking for a united Australia. Like most of the countries that have announced official support for the US position on Iraq, Australia is deeply divided.
The latest national opinion poll shows that 76 percent of Australians oppose Australian participation in a US-led war on Iraq. And that sentiment was reflected in an unprece´dented move by the Australian Senate last week, which voted 33-31 to censure Howard for committing 2,000 soldiers -- 450 of whom are already on the ground in the Middle East -- to join US troops in a potential war against Iraq.
"The Senate declares that it has no confidence in the Prime Minister's handling of this grave matter for the nation," read the measure, which also registered the opposition of the upper chamber of the Australian government to an attack on Iraq led by the US, and which insisted that moves to disarm Iraq be carried out under UN authority.
"The result means that Mr Howard does not have the mandate of parliament to deploy troops in a war without United Nations backing," explained Senator John Faulkner, the leader of the opposition Labor Party.
"This is an historic vote by the Senate," added Green Party Senator Bob Brown, a prime mover behind the censure vote. "It's the first time in history, in 102 years, that this Senate has voted no confidence in the Prime Minister of the day. The Prime Minister made the decision to deploy 2,000 defence personnel with no reference to the parliament, without the backing of the Australian people, without a request from the United Nations. He stands condemned, censured and without the confidence of the house of review, the Senate in Australia."
Censure by the Australian Senate, just one of two legislative chambers in that country, is not sufficient to force Howard to change course. But the vote, and continued questioning of Howard's approach by opposition leaders in the other chamber, the Parliament, signal that Australia is far from united for war.
Just as the White House press corps continually fails to take note of the level of dissent in the US, it it now missing the story of serious opposition in countries that the Bush administration would have us believe are "on board" for war.
Speaking to the United Nations on Wednesday, in an address that was broadly portrayed as a case for war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that, "Iraq today is actively using its considerable intelligence capabilities to hide its illicit activities." To support that claim, Powell said, "I would call my colleagues attention to the fine paper that United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities."
It turns out, however, that much of that "fine paper" – a dossier distributed by the office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair under the title, "Iraq - Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation" – was not a fresh accounting of information based on new "intelligence" about Iraqi attempts to thwart UN weapons inspections. Rather, the document has been exposed by Britain's ITN television network as a cut-and-paste collection of previously published academic articles, some of which were based on dated material.
Substantial portions of the report that Powell used to support his critique of Iraq were lifted from an article written by a postgraduate student who works not in Baghdad but in Monterey, California, and who based much of his research on materials left in Kuwait more than a dozen years ago by Iraqi security services.
ITN's Channel 4 News (http://www.channel4.com/news/) revealed Thursday night that at least four of the government report's 19 pages had been copied from an internet version of an article by the California researcher, Ibrahim al-Marashi, which appeared in September, 2002, in an academic journal, the Middle East Review of International Affairs. According to al-Marashi, he was not contacted by the British government regarding his research or his sources.
The portions of the government document taken from al-Marashi's article appear to have been grabbed in what Britain's Guardian newspaper describes in Friday morning's editions as "a sham" and "an electronic cut-and-paste operation by Whitehall (Blair government) officials." So sweeping was the plagiarism that, according to British journalists who reviewed the materials, typographical errors – including a misplaced comma -- that appeared in al-Marashi's article were reproduced in the official dossier that was posted on Blair's 10 Downing Street website.
To the extent that changes were made, they appear to have been inserted to increase the shock value of the information. Though he said that most of the information that was swiped from his article was reproduced accurately, al-Marashi told BBC's Newsnight program that the British dossier included "cosmetic changes." For instance, he noted, "I said that (Iraqi intelligence operatives) support organizations in what Iraq considers hostile regimes, whereas the UK document refers to it as 'supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes'."
In addition to the sections taken from al-Marashi's article, according to the Guardian, "The content of six more pages (of the dossier) relies heavily on articles by Sean Boyne and Ken Gause that appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review in 1997 and last November. None of these sources is acknowledged."
Blair aides scrambled on Thursday evening to cover their tracks. "We said that it draws on a number of sources, including intelligence. It speaks for itself," a Downing Street spokesperson said of the report. Appearing on the BBC last night, Blair said he still believes he is right to argue that Iraq poses a clear danger to the world. "I may be wrong, but I do believe it," the prime minister said at one point.
Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, suggested that a measure of skepticism might be appropriate. Rangwala discovered the similarities between the academic articles and the Downing Street dossier. That happened when he sat down to read the official dossier this week. "I found it quite startling when I realized that I'd read most of it before," he told a television interviewer.
"Apart from passing this off as the work of its intelligence services," Rangwala said, "it indicates that the UK really does not have any independent sources of information on Iraq's internal policies. It just draws upon publicly available data."
A bit of advice for the Bush White House: Don't pick fights with professional wordsmiths.
First Lady Laura Bush's decision to cancel a White House symposium on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes because she feared antiwar sentiments might be expressed has provoked a pummeling of the Administration by poets who would have been part of the February 12 "Poetry and the American Voice" session.
"The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does not wish to open its doors to an ‘American Voice' that does not echo the Administration's misguided policies," declared Rita Dove, the nation's poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. "I had no doubt in my mind that I couldn't go, if only because of the hideous use of language that emanates from this White House: The lying, the Orwellian euphemisms..." added Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, who said that he was sorry the first lady cancelled the symposium before he could refuse his invite.
Stanley Kunitz, the 2001 and 2002 poet laureate, observed that, "I think there was a general feeling that the current Administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse."
The poet who got off the best line may have been Sam Hamill, who noted that his name was on the invitation list despite his own history of antiwar activism. "I'm sure the person who put my name on the list is looking for a job," joked Hamill, whose request that writer friends send him antiwar poems for the symposium might have inspired the Administration's decision to cancel the event with a tart statement from Mrs. Bush's office that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." (Hamill's call has, so far, drawn more than 2,000 responses, including those of W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sent along a copy of, "Coda," a poem featuring the line: "And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center-Into the beginning of the Third World War.")
Actually, Mrs. Bush would have been lucky if her symposium had featured only contemporary criticism of US imperialism and conservative policies. A far greater danger for the Administration was the prospect that those attending the conference would have used the words of Dickinson, Hughes and Whitman against them.
Dickinson may not have been a radical, but nor was she enthusiastic about militarism. Benjamin Lasee, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Northeastern Illinois University, has written of how Dickinson counted the cost of war: "In one poem ('It feels a shame to be Alive'), she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and closes by asking why ‘such Enormous Pearl' as life should be dissolved 'In Battle's horrid Bowl.'"
Hughes (who would have turned 101 on Saturday, February 1) was a proud leftist whose poetry condemned US government hypocrisy at home and abroad. Reflecting on racism in the United States, Hughes wrote, "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes..." and argued: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above." And could there be a more damning reflection of the Bush's Administration's use of post-September 11 sentiment to pass the Patriot Act than Hughes' line: "O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath"?
Whitman, of course, would have been the most problematic poet for the Bushes. Openly gay and radical, he was no friend to politicians, complaining that offices such as the presidency were "bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes." And one can only imagine the reaction of this Administration's conservative thought police to Whitman's great mandate: "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."
Hamill, who plans to post the antiwar poems at www.PoetsAgainstTheWar.org, made a very good point when he said, "I saw profound irony in their choice of poets. These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House -- the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever read Whitman."
When Congressional Democrats asked Governor Gary Locke of Washington state to deliver the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, they ceded what could have been be their highest profile media moment of the year to someone who does not sit in the House or Senate. It was a mistake.
Locke is an able if not particularly exciting administrator, and he had some good things to say about the way that states -- and the people who live in them -- could be harmed by administration proposals to roll back environmental protections, skew tax cuts to benefit the richest Americans and privatize Medicare. But he danced around foreign policy questions, and he never landed a serious blow on Bush's domestic agenda.
If ever there was a moment when Democrats in Washington needed to ask someone who is in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill to describe their differences with the administration, it was following this year's State of the Union address. After the November, 2002, elections put conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and with the Bush administration now moving aggressively to launch a war with Iraq, advance an economically preposterous "stimulus" plan and nominate right-wing judicial activists for openings on every federal bench, Democrats in Congress could not afford to surrender the rebuttal spot that remains one of the few openings for a serious critique of the president's highest-profile annual address.
To be fair to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, they did organize a "prebuttal" press conference on Monday, where Pelosi did a decent job of arguing that the administration needs to broaden its definition of security to include economic security at home. Daschle showed some rhetorical flair when he announced that, "The state of our union today is anxious. The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking."
But, for the most part, Daschle still seemed to be having a hard time presenting a surer, clearer vision of the course Democrats would set. Neither Locke's rebuttal nor the Daschle-Pelosi "prebuttal" sounded like the sort of rip-roaring alternative that might energize opponents of the administration policies in Washington or beyond. For that, Americans needed to search out reports of Tuesday's Alternative State of the Union session in the Capitol, where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mounted a devastating assault on administration policies.
"We are holding an Alternative State of the Union address because we believe that Americans deserve a vision of a future of peace and justice rather than war and economic hardship and inequality," said California Democrat Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the 53-member caucus, as she opened the session. "At last year's State of the Union, President Bush gave us the axis of evil. Today, we face crises and possible war on multiple fronts. In fact, we face possible endless war because the doctrine of preemption knows no limits. It also brings us no security."
The Progressive Caucus' 15-page critique of the State of the Union as year three of the Bush presidency begins was delivered by Lee's co-chair, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. It argued that President Bush has "brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iraq, yet the Administration has not produced any compelling evidence linking Iraq to the attacks of 9-11, nor any evidence that Iraq poses a threat to the United States." It accused the White House of taking actions that had "squandered widespread international sympathy and support for the U.S. after the 9-11 attack," "assaulted basic civil liberties" and "(waged) class warfare against the majority of Americans, even as the nation sputters along the edge of a double dip recession." And it offered a dramatically different vision for where America should be headed, declaring:
"Today, Progressives in Congress offer an alternative that will create peace and prosperity for all Americans:
* Progressives believe that a war with Iraq is unjustified and the U.S. should halt the war preparations. Instead, the U.S. should strongly support the UN inspectors in Iraq.
* Progressives believe that the national economy is in serious trouble and needs a genuine stimulus. The stimulus must be large, it must jump-start the economy immediately, it must create new jobs, it must be fair; it must put money in the pockets of the majority of Americans, and it should target neglected areas of society, such as housing, schools, and water systems.
* Progressives believe all Americans deserve a guarantee of high quality, affordable, health care. With the failure of the private market to deliver health care to 41 million Americans and affordable pharmaceuticals to senior citizens, Medicare should be improved and expanded to give high quality health care to every American and a prescription drug benefit to seniors.
* Progressives believe that jobs should pay living wages, that people be more easily able to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers and that the federal government should guarantee Social Security with the "full faith and credit of the United States."
* Progressives in Congress believe that Americans should be assured of strong civil rights and liberties, including reproductive choice.
America, gather up your courage. We can make America a better place. The future can be better than the past. There is an alternative to the Bush Administration."
Progressive Caucus members, especially Kucinich, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, have been in the forefront of organizing Congressional opposition to Bush administration plans to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. But Caucus members focused at least as much on economic issues. And as they built the case against the administration, it was difficult not to wonder how much Tuesday's night's discourse might have been improved if a Congressional Progressive Caucus representative, say Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, had been asked to deliver the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union on primetime television.
Sanders could have echoed his comments of earlier Tuesday, in which he said, "Unemployment is going up and we have lost 2 million good paying manufacturing jobs in the last two years, including many in Vermont. Poverty is increasing and the number of Americans who lack health insurance or are underinsured is also soaring. Instead of cutting back on Medicare and veterans' needs, and giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, President Bush should be providing serious legislative proposals that will protect the needs of the middle class and working families of our country."
Just imagine how much more exciting it would have been if the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union address had featured Barbara Lee announcing, as she did Tuesday: "Here in the United States, we hold ourselves up as model for all countries and peoples who seek to be free. We are not living up to this model. But we can. We can pursue peace and justice and through them achieve security. We can regrow this economy and create jobs and opportunities. We can preserve important existing protections, from affirmative action to reproductive freedoms to the Clean Air Act. We can invest in education, healthcare, and home building. And, next year's State of the Union could then be a reflection of how far we have come and how much progress we have made. That is the America that the Progressive Caucus envisions, and that is the future we will help forge."
As President Bush prepared to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he received a letter signed by more than 120 House members of the House of Representatives asking him "to use the opportunity provided in the upcoming State of the Union Address to offer assurances both to the American people and the international community that the United States remains committed to the diplomatic approach and comprehensive inspections process agreed to in the UN Security Council."
The letter, authored by Representatives Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, argues that the weapons inspection process "is an inherently difficult task requiring patience and perseverance." And it goes on to suggest that: "The report (given) by chief U.N. weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix and Director General Mohamed El-Baradei on Jan. 27, 2003, (assesses) whether the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency's comprehensive mission is proceeding in the unobstructed and effective manner necessary to realize the aims of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. We encourage your administration to sufficiently weigh future decisions regarding Iraq on the assessment given by UNMOVIC/IAEA, including additional inspection time and resources as appropriate. Your commitment to working through the UN Security Council and your vocal support for Resolution 1441 are critical to UNMOVIC/IAEA's eventual success."
Though the Bush administration has been extremely slow to recognize the mounting opposition to war with Iraq among Americans -- in Washington and, more significantly, beyond the beltway -- the president might want to note the list of signers on this letter. Among them are not just members of the House such as Brown and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who voted against last fall's Congressional resolution authorizing the president to take steps leading to war with Iraq, but also members such as Kind, who voted for the resolution.
Noting Blix's statement that the report should not be seen as a conclusive assessment, and that European allies -- including Great Britain -- have said that Jan. 27 should not be seen as a deadline for action, Kind expressed concern about signals from the Bush administration that the date might be seen as the "final phase" of the inspection process, and hints from administration that diplomatic efforts are being rejected in favor of war preparation.
Echoing the concerns of a number of House members who voted for last fall's resolution, Kind said as he dispatched the letter to Bush, "In previous correspondence to President Bush, I stressed the importance of the administration exhausting all diplomatic measures to disarm Saddam Hussein of his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, before considering the use of multilateral force as a last resort. The letter Sherrod Brown and I have sent to President Bush today reiterates that sentiment and advocates that the administration continue to work with the international community to secure Iraq's disarmament, as well as (to) provide the U.N. weapons inspectors with the time and resources they need to effectively do their job."
Brown credited the internet activist group MoveOn.org with helping to gather signers for the "Let the Inspections Work" letter. The organization, which coordinated visits by anti-war activists to more than 450 House and Senate offices across the country last week, sent targeted emails to its 700,000 US members urging them to call their representatives and ask them to sign the letter.
Among the House members who voted for the Oct. 10 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq who signed the letter were Kind, a leader of the moderate New Democrat Network, and Californians Henry Waxman, Adam Schiff and Ellen Tauscher, Florida's Bob Wexler, Iowa's Leonard Boswell, Massachusett's Martin Meehan, Maryland's Albert Wynn, New Jersey's Pascrell, and New Yorkers Nita Lowey, Carolyn Mahoney, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Engel and Michael McNulty, and Washington state's Adam Smith.
The overall list of signers released by Brown's office included: Abercrombie, Allen, Baca, Baird, Baldwin, Ballance, Becerra, Berkley, Berry, Blumenauer, Boswell, Boucher, Boyd, Brady (PA), Brown (OH),Brown (FL), Capps, Capuano, Cardin, Carson (IN), Case, Clay, Conyers, Crowley, Cummings, Davis (FL),Davis (CA), Davis (IL), DeFazio, Delahunt, DeLauro, Doggett, Engel, Eshoo, Evans, Farr, Fattah, Filner, Frank, Gutierrez, Grijalva, Hastings (FL), Hinchey, Hoeffel, Holt, Honda, Hooley, Inslee, Jackson, Jackson-Lee, Johnson (TX), Jones (OH), Kaptur, Kildee, Kind, Kleczka, Kucinich, Langevin, Larsen, Lee, Lewis (GA), Lofgren, Lowey, McCarthy (MO), McCollum, McDermott, McGovern, McNulty, Maloney (NY), Matheson, Meehan, Meek, Meeks, Michaud, Millender-McDonald, Miller, Moran, Nadler, Napolitano, Neal, Norton, Oberstar, Olver, Owens, Pascrell, Payne, Price, Rahall, Rangell, Rodriguez, Roybal-Allard, Rush, Ryan (OH), Sabo, Sanchez (CA-39), Sanders, Schakowsky, Schiff, Scott (VA), Serrano, Slaughter, Smith (WA), Stark, Strickland, Stupak, Tauscher, Thompson (CA), Tierney, Towns, Udall (NM), Van Hollen, Velasquez, Waters, Watson, Watt, Waxman, Weiner, Wexler, Woolsey, Wu and Wynn.
"I want Bush to see that his people are against the war," declared 38-year-old Aris Cisneros, as he and his two childern joined a demonstration that filled the streets of downtown San Francisco.
Cisneros' sentiments were echoed coast to coast Saturday by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who marched in Washington, San Francisco and dozens of other communities in protest against the Bush administration's preparation for war with Iraq.
Braving freezing temperatures in Washington, tens of thousands of activists who had traveled by bus from as far away as Minnesota cheered as actress Jessica Lange declared, "The path this administration is on is wrong and we object. It is an immoral war they are planning and we must not be silenced."
"All this talk of war, all this rhetoric has been an excellent cover, an excellent camouflage, to turn back the clock on civil rights, on woman's rights, on social justice and on environmental policies," shouted Lange, who said she had come to Washington to tell the president: "We are the people. You do not speak for us."
Bush had hightailed it off to Camp David for the weekend. But the president and his aides could not have been unaware of the rising level of anti-war activism, of which Saturday's protests were merely the latest manifestation. On Thursday, the Chicago City Council voted 46-1 for a resolution expressing opposition to a pre-emptive attack against Iraq, making it the largest of more than 40 cities across the country to embrace an anti-war stance. Several days earlier, 110 officers from unions across the country had gathered in Chicago to organize US Labor Against the War with a declaration that "Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption and layoffs."
Recent national polls have tracked a steady erosion of approval ratings for the president, which last week dropped below 60 percent for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Saturday, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 53 percent of Americans believe the president has so far failed to adequately justified ordering the United States military to invade Iraq and depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "It sounds like a lot of you don't have respect for your president," joked a member of the British rock band Chumbawamba, as the group opened the Washington rally. The group debuted a new anti-war song, "Jacob's Ladder (Not In Our Name)" that complains about how "9/11 got branded, 9/11 got sold" as part of the Bush administration scheming to start a war with Iraq.
Again and again Saturday, at protests across the country, speakers described the administration's plans for launching a war against Iraq as a scheme to distract Americans from the president's domestic failures. "Bush keeps talking about weapons of mass destruction," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Washington's Plymouth Congregational Church told the rally outside the Capitol. "When I look at the White House I am much more worried about words of mass deception."
The rally that packed the National Mall in Washington was estimated by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) coalition organizers to have drawn several hundred thousand people, a number DC police failed to either refute or confirm. The San Francisco rally was said to have attracted more than 100,000 to hear Joan Baez sing anti-war songs and actor Martin Sheen declare: "We want to end our long and shameful silence here today and say 'No' to death and war. From this time forth, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be a nonviolent resistance to all violence. Let my country awake."
At least three thousand people demonstrated in Montpelier, Vermont. Several thousand people marched in Portland, Oregon. Thousands more hit the streets in Albuquerque, Tampa, Indianapolis and college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters on the Las Vegas strip hoisted a sign that read: "Elvis hates war."
The historic figure most referenced at the demonstrations was not that "king,' however, On the eve of the national holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's birth, the slain civil rights leader's commitment to peace was referenced frequently by those who knew him, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who addressed the Washington rally, to those who have followed in his tradition.
"If Dr. King was here to celebrate his birthday, Mr. Bush, he would not be inside preparing for military build up," Rev. Al Sharpton told the Washington demonstrators. "He'd be outside saying, ‘Give peace a chance."
Sharpton closed his speech to thunderous applause as he declared, "Happy Birthday, Martin – just like Bush's son is in the White House, your children are here (demonstrating) today."
If there was one thing that rational political observers agreed upon after last November's Democratic debacle, it was that Democrats need to do a much better job of distinguishing themselves from the Republicans.
That recognition should dim the prospects of Joe Lieberman as a serious presidential prospect in 2004. After all, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, Lieberman is famous for taking conservative stands that "rankle (the) liberal Democrats who comprise the core of the party."
Yet, with his Monday declaration, Lieberman is officially in the running. And by many estimations -- especially those of conservative commentators for whom Lieberman has long been the Democrat of choice -- he is a leading contender for his party's nomination.
Lieberman's position at or near the head of the pack of Democratic contenders has more to do with the fact that he was the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee than with enthusiasm among Democrats for his positions. That's because, while he seeks to be the party's standard-bearer in the 2004 contest, he has been a frequent and enthusiastic ally of the Bush administration on many of the most critical issues of the past two years.
Lieberman says he wants to campaign as "a different kind of Democrat." That he certainly is.
While the majority of Congressional Democrats have expressed clear reservations about the Bush administration's rush to launch a war with Iraq, for instance, Lieberman has been cheerleader-in-chief for the Bush line.
Even before the president began pressing for war with Iraq, Lieberman was beating the battle drums for "regime change." One of the leading Senate backers of the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution -- which was supported by only 10 of 55 Democrats in the Senate at the time -- he remains a far more outspoken advocate for a new war with Iraq than many Republicans. Lieberman co-sponsored the Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Indeed, at the Stamford, Connecticut, press conference where he announced his candidacy Monday, Lieberman declared, "I'm grateful that President Bush has focused on Iraq."
Lieberman went on to criticize Bush for being too soft on North Korea, criticizing the administration for "taking the military option off the table" with regard to the regime in Pyongyang.
In addition to promoting a Republican-lite line regarding foreign policy, Lieberman frequently echoes the GOP line on domestic social and economic issues. To a greater extent than any other Democrat seeking the 2004 nomination at this point, Lieberman has found himself in coalition with the religious right. Lieberman has made common cause with former Vice President Dan Quayle, the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others who condemn the entertainment industry for promoting what the senator calls "amoral" programming.
Lieberman has been the Bush administration's most prominent Democratic ally in efforts to develop voucher programs to divert public funds to private schools. He's also a leading supporter of proposals to allow moments of silence in public school classrooms, when Lieberman acknowledges that students could engage in prayer. During the 2000 campaign, it was not Bush, the born-again Christian Republican, but Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish Democrat, who said of Americans: "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."
Lieberman is not so rigid a conservative as some of his Republican allies in debates over vouchers, school prayer and forcing standards on the entertainment industry - like many New England Republicans, for instance, he supports reproductive and gay rights. He has a far better record on race-related issues than southern Republicans such as former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. And he is generally more easygoing than his Republican counterparts in the Congress. But Lieberman's much-reported public moralizing led Rabbi Michael Lerner to comment that, "Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy."
There is no question that Lieberman's greatest area of common cause with conservative Republicans has been on issues of concern to corporations. That was obvious during the 107th Congress when, as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and one of the most prominent Democrats in the Senate, he failed to push for the sort of aggressive, no-stones-unturned investigations of corporate ethics and responsibility that the Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing scandals demanded.
Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's agenda was on display during 2002's extended debate over whether Congress should hand the Bush Administration Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bitterly opposed by organized labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups, the Fast Track proposal was the top priority of corporate interests during the 107th Congress.
That was hardly the only example of Lieberman siding with corporate interests in opposition to labor and environmental groups on trade issues. His has been a consistent vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Most-Favored-Nation trading status for China and the general corporate free-trade agenda, paralleling the position of corporation-funded and militantly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council.
Lieberman, a former DLC chair, said that his selection as the Democratic party's 2000 vice presidential nominee "was surely a recognition of the enduring values and new ideas of the New Democratic movement." About that, he is surely correct.
The question that remains is this one: Do the voters who will decide the Democratic primaries and caucuses of 2004 really share the values of Lieberman and other DLC stalwarts who have battled to steer the party to the right? Or will they reject a Lieberman candidacy that is guaranteed to blur the margins of distinction between the two major parties even more than in the disasterous 2002 election cycle?
As George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University replied when asked about Lieberman's prospects as a presidential contender: "Democrats might want someone with a more of a Democratic edge."
America stands on the cusp of a sweeping set of shifts in federal media ownership rules that could dramatically alter the nature of what we see, hear and read, warns Federal Commications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein. Dialogue and debate about these proposed changes must be ramped up quickly if the public interest is to be protected.
But first, how about a harmonica solo?
Before delivering his first major policy address at the annual conference of the Future of Music Coalition, Adelstein wowed a crowd of several hundred there by playing a mean harmonica during a performance by Lester Chambers of the groundbreaking 1960s group The Chambers Brothers.
Adelstein, a Democrat whose appointment to the five-member FCC was recently approved, could not have chosen a better way to introduce himself to the musicians, journalists and advocates who crowded an ancient hall on Washington's Georgetown University campus. Appearing on a stage that had been occupied during this year's Future of Music Coalition conference by rock stars like Patti Smith and Living Color's Vernon Reid, jazz players such as Alfonzo Blackwell, producers like the legendary Sandy Pearlman and media personalities such as Ira Glass, host of the This American Life radio show, Adelstein knew he had to perform. And he got high marks for his able riffs during Chambers' performance of "People Get Ready."
But he got higher marks for his eyes-wide-open report on the devastating impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on radio diversity. Before an audience filled with people who worry that the Congress or the FCC just don't get it, Adelstein came across as a commissioner who understands what is at stake when regulators allow media corporations to dominate whole communications systems.
"The 1996 Act entirely eliminated a cap on the number of radio stations a single company can own nationwide. It also relaxed local ownership limits, permitting a single owner to control up to eight stations in the nations' largest markets. As one might have predicted, the relaxation of these rules led inevitably to more stations in fewer hands," Adelstein said.
"According to one FCC report, in the six years since the adoption of the 1996 Act, the number of radio station owners in the United States declined by 34 percent, even though the number of commercial radio stations increased by 5.4 percent. The FCC found that the decline is primarily due to mergers between existing owners."
To illustrate the dramatic nature of the changes that have taken place, Adelstein noted that, "In 1996, the two largest radio group owners consisted of fewer than 65 radio stations. Six years later, the largest radio group owns about 1,200 radio stations. The second largest group owns about 250 stations. Their influence is even larger than their numbers suggest, because they are concentrated in the largest markets in the country."
Adelstein hailed a Future of Music Coalition report that showed how more and more programming on local radio stations is being done at the national level by media conglomerates rather than at the local level by hometown disc jockeys. "We must consider how consolidation affects all of you as artists," Adelstein told the crowd of several hundred recording artists and music industry players who attended the conference Monday. "Years ago, as a new artist, you might have gotten your first airplay on your local station – in a town where the DJ heard you at a local club the night before and wanted everyone in town to hear you, as well. As national groups buy out more local stations, that town may no longer have a local DJ at all."
"Consolidation," Adelstein warned, "often leads to the homogenization of programming. We must ask ourselves: At what point does consolidation come at the cost of the local expression that makes radio so unique and so special in this country? At what point does allowing consolidation undermine the public interest – and the quality of what we hear on the radio?"
The answer, according to many of the artists attending the conference, is that the point of impact has already been passed. "Because of radio consolidation and the emphasis of strict formats and constant cost cutting by media companies, musicians and fans of music are losing out," says musician Jenny Toomey, who serves as executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. "Consolidation has led to less diversity."
One member of Congress, US Senator Russ Feingold, has sought to address the negative impacts of the Telecommunications Act with legislation. The Wisconsin Democrat's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act seeks to address concerns about media monopolies, the loss of diversity and the return of old-fashioned payola scandals. But before Feingold's legislation even gets a hearing in Congress, the FCC could take steps that will lead to greater consolidation and conglomeration within media industries. At issue in coming months are proposals to ease rules that prevent a single television network from controlling stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience, as well as rules regarding the number of television and radio stations that one company could own in a single region. Another proposed rule change could allow one company to own a major daily newspaper and the major television and radio station in the same community.
FCC chair Michael Powell and at least two other FCC commissioners are believed to be sympathetic to demands by media corporations for further relaxation of ownership rules. But Adelstein continues to argue for caution, and he suggested that activism by musicians and music fans could yet change the character and the direction of the debate.
"Congress's relaxation of the rules on radio consolidation has been the canary in the mine, testing whether it is safe to go in before miners dare enter," Adelstein explained. "The miners in this case are all the consumers affected by FCC rules that govern the ownership of television, radio, cable and newspapers," he said. "The FCC better carefully consider the health of that canary before we proceed further, because changes to the FCC's media ownership rules potentially could alter the media landscape as much or more than the 1996 actions by Congress changed the radio industry."
Recalling a line from "People Get Ready" the song he played harmonica on a few minutes earlier Adelstein said: "Lester Chambers got it right: There's a big train a coming." And if musicians and music fans don't want the train to roll over them, Adelstein suggested, it's time to get active. "In order to insure that there continues to be a range of voices heard over the airwaves and through all of the media, we need to continue to hear you voices loud and clear before the FCC and throughout the government," Adelstein said. "So turn it up!"
The punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s seized the power of rock-and-roll back from the corporate conglomerates that had warped the music into a flabby, over-produced, stadium-rocking mess.
But it was Joe Strummer who made punk rock more than just an anarchic flail against the dying of the light. With The Clash, Strummer gave punk a militant, internationalist, pro-Black edge that made it matter not just as a musical statement but as a political one.
"It was The Clash that struck the strong political stance that really inspired a lot of people, and within The Clash he was the political engine of the band," explained British singer Billy Bragg.
Strummer, who died Sunday from an apparent heart attack at age 50, was in on the ground floor of the punk moment. He saw a 1976 gig by the Sex Pistols and decided to start a band with Mick Jones and, after several personnel shifts, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. By the summer of that year, The Clash was opening for the Pistols, and by the start of 1977 The Clash had a British hit with "White Riot." Even on that first single, Strummer displayed the sensibilities that would come to define The Clash's music: a reverence for radicalism, a faith in the power of direct action, an unyielding honesty and bluntness, a call to arms and a respect for rhythm that distinguished his band from most its contemporaries.
Written by Strummer and Jones at a time when British cities were experiencing a wave of urban riots, "White Riot" celebrated the revolt of Caribbean and African immigrants against the genteel racism of the British upper classes and asked why working-class whites didn't join the fight. ("Black people gotta lot a problems/But they don't mind throwing a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick...) The song's class consciousness ("All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it...") was matched by a demand for activism that pushed punk in a new and some thought dangerous direction ("Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?/Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?").
The self-titled album that followed was so edgy that Columbia Records - the parent company of the band's British label - refused to release it in the United States.
Barely two years later, however, with the release of "London Calling," The Clash were suddenly being referred to by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as "The Only Band That Matters." For a few years there, it was hard to argue with the description. The Clash helped to define the punk and new wave movements as explicitly anti-racist -- working with ska and reggae bands to build the late-1970s Rock Against Racism movement in Britain.
Ultimately, however, the greatest political and cultural contributions made by Strummer and The Clash came in the form of the music. Fueled by Strummer's fascination with the world's music - born John Graham Mellor in Turkey, Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent much of his early life in Egypt, Mexico, Malawi and Iran - the band sampled widely from a diverse blend of musical styles.
Clash albums were infused with reggae, ska, funk and African rhythms, as well as with radical ideas about race, class and politics. Socialist, internationalist and angry, Strummer and The Clash started out by savaging British policies (especially those of a rising Tory politician named Margaret Thatcher) but they quickly found a bigger target in US foreign policy. The band's epic, three-album 1980 release, "Sandinista!" -- which was inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 -- was a fierce indictment of US policy in Latin American. One song, "Washington Bullets," recalled the US role in the overthrow of the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende: "As every cell in Chile will tell/The cries of the tortured men," Strummer growled. "Remember Allende, and the days before,/Before the army came/Please remember Victor Jara,/In the Santiago Stadium,/Es verdad - those Washington Bullets again."
Strummer took pains to emphasize that he was a musician first - more a fan of Mott the Hoople than Marx, he liked to say. Yet, Strummer argued, it was impossible to avoid the reality of economic, racial and social injustice: "The politics were on the street in front of us, man," he said, explaining that The Clash was forged in a moment when London was the home to refugees from Chile, as well as South Africans, Namibians and Zimbabweans who had fled white racist regimes in Africa
More than any other punk star, Strummer argued that the movement itself needed to be remembered as a radical break not just from increasingly pompous musical norms of the early 1970s but from a conservative mindset. "I will always believe in punk rock, because it's about creating something for yourself," he said in a July, 2002, interview. "Part of it was: 'Stop being a sap! Lift your head up and see what is really going on in the political, social and religious situations, and try to see through the smoke screens."
The Clash fell apart in the mid-1980s, after Strummer and Jones fell out. But the band's influence grew - to a point where, next March, it will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For his part, Strummer retreated to rural England and slowly forged a solo career that ended up maintaining the values - both musical and political - of his best work with The Clash. His version of "Minstrel Boy" was a highlight of the "Black Hawk Down" movie soundtrack and the 2001 CD from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, "Global Ago-Go" was a brilliant multicultural mix flavored with Strummer's best singing since his heyday with The Clash.
Strummer was working on a new Mescaleros release at the time of his death, along with a much-anticipated collaboration with U2's Bono and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics titled "48864." That's the number Nelson Mandela bore while imprisoned on South Africa's Robben Island. The song was supposed to debut February 2, as part of a Robben Island benefit to help Mandela raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa.
Those who knew the man and his music were not at all surprised that Strummer's last project was every bit as militant and globally-focused as his remarkable career.
"The thing about Strummer was he walked it like he talked it," said Billy Bragg. "He didn't cop out."