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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Bigotry, Lies and the GOP

Rick Santorum is a bigot. And, like others bigots before him, he seeks to promote his views be claiming the American people face "threats" that do not exist.

Santorum, the Pennsylvanian who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, is blatant about his bigotry. Unlike former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who got in trouble for praising Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948, Santorum was talking about the here and now when he objected to efforts to strike down sodomy laws because he opposes lifting criminal sanctions against gay and lesbian relationships. To this senator's view, gays and lesbians who engage in consensual, monogomous and loving relationships "undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family."

Just as Santorum is blatant about his bigotry, he is equally blatant in his fearmongering, arguing that, "(If) the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does."

Santorum told an Associated Press reporter that respecting the rights of adult citizens to engage in loving, respectful relationships is wrong because such a stance "destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family."

Wrong as he may be, Santorum has a right to his point of view -- just as people have a right to believe in trickle-down economics and other dangerous fallacies. But Santorum has no right to have his retrograde viewpoints treated with respect. To do so would be to legitimize the bigotry that has eaten away at his ability to recognize -- or, at least, respect -- reality.

Charges that striking down laws that criminalize same-sex relationships will eliminate restrictions on incest and polygamy used to heard quite frequently from politicians who sought votes by pitting groups against one another. But even on the right-wing of the political spectrum, such talk has become less common in recent years. Why? Because states across the country have been striking down sodomy laws for more than 40 years, without weakening laws against incest and polygamy.

Twenty-six states have repealed sodomy laws since Illinois began the trend in 1962. The courts have struck down sodomy laws in nine more states.

More than two dozen states have passed laws barring different forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians since Wisconsin did so in 1982. Hundreds of communities have done the same. The courts have upheld these moves, while continuing to recoginize the ability of states and communities to impose sanctions against incest, polygamy and other behaviors on Santorum's list.

So the senator is wrong. And, because of his prominent position and history of dealing with social issues as the fair-haired boy of the Republican right, it is fair to assume that he knows better. So it is certainly reasonable to assume that Santorum is motivated not by genuine concern about the spread of polygamy but by his bigotry against lesbians and gays.

Fair enough. There are plenty of bigots in politics. And, in this democracy, voters are permitted to elect them.

However, voters are also permitted to ask whether Santorum speaks for the Republican Party. He is, after all, the chair of the party's caucus in the upper house of the Congress.

Two prominent Republican moderates have been appropriately critical of Santorum. "Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society, and I believe Senator Santorum's unfortunate remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity," says Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, says that, "I thought his choice of comparisons was unfortunate and the premise that the right of privacy does not exist -- just plain wrong. Senator Santorum's views are not held by this Republican and many others in our party."

But is Chafee right? Is Santorum the one who stands outside the GOP mainstream? So far, the nation's leading Republican is refusing to comment on the Santorum flap. The Bush White House is officially silent. Most leading Republicans in Congress have also gone uncharacteristically mum -- though, in some cases, they are actually defending Santorum. The man who replaced Lott, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has gone so far as to claim that Santorum is "a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party."

So where does the Grand Old Party stand? Exactly how big is the big tent? The moment demands some clarification, and Republicans have a model for how to approach such a circumstance.

When Trent Lott made statements that seemed to suggest a sympathy for the racist bigotries of the 1940s, President Bush and his aides were quick to distance themselves from that senator's sentiments. So too were a number of prominent conservative Republicans in the Senate. Bush and other party leaders ought to do the same with regard to Santorum, unless, of course, they share his point of view.

The Boss Defends Dissenters

"America has entered one of its periods of historical madness," argues author John Le Carré, who suggests that the current drive by conservatives in Congress and their media allies to search out and destroy dissent is "worse than McCarthyism." That may sound extreme to some, but it certainly must ring true for Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, whose mild criticism of President Bush in the days before the war with Iraq began has made the group target No. 1 for the Elite Republican Guardians of patriotic propriety.

After Maines, a native of Lubbock, told a crowd at a London Dixie Chicks show that "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," South Carolina legislators passed a bill declaring those words to be "unpatriotic," disc jockeys organized rallies at which tractors were used to destroy Dixie Chicks CDs, and radio stations across the south barred songs by the groups. Though officials of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that controls more than 1,200 radio stations across the US denied that they had issued a network-wide ban order, Clear Channel's country and pop music stations were among the first to declare themselves "Chicks Free." And the chattering class of conservative talk-radio and talk-TV piled on with calls for boycotts of the group's upcoming concert tour.

With the experience of the Dixie Chicks providing a cautionary tale--and with high-profile actors who have expressed antiwar views, such as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo, being branded "casting couch Bolsheviks" and worse--there was a clear signal coming from the entertainment industry in general, and the music industry in particular, about what happens when artists speak out. While outspoken groups and individual performers such as the Beastie Boys, System of the Down, REM, Lenny Kravitz, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Zack de la Rocha dared to speak out musically, radio playlists have tended increasingly to feature Bush Administration-friendly songs like Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgetten" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith--who criticizes Maines as a "big mouth." Madonna remade what had been described as an antiwar video for her new single, "American Life," because she said, "I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video." And, against the pressure to make music conform to the conservative agenda of the Bush Administration, there has been a whole lot of silence from most of the music industry's biggest names.

But Bruce Springsteen is not one to let his voice be frozen out by a free speech chill. Springsteen featured a roaring version of Edwin Starr's anti-war hit, "War (What Is It Good For?)," during March shows in the U.S. and Australia; at a Melbourne show during the first days of the war, he told the crowd between performances of the songs "My City of Ruins" and "Land Of Hope and Dreams" that: "We pray for the safety of our sons and daughters, innocent sons and daughters and innocent Iraqi civilians." Now, the man whose song "Born in the USA" remains an anthem for patriots of many stripes--including those who see dissent as the truest expression of Americanism--has let rip with a powerful defense of the Dixie Chicks and artistic free speech.

"The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they're terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American," Springsteen said in a statement that was set to be posted today on the www.brucespringsteen.net website.

"The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about--namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home," added Springtseen, whose 2002 album The Rising, a groundbreaking rumination on September 11th and its aftermath, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and has been certified double platinum.

"I don't know what happens next," Springsteen said of America's current moment, "but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support."

As usual, Springsteen has his finger closer to the pulse of America than the ranting right and those over-cautious celebrities who have shied away from the controversy. Of the 59 shows on the upcoming Dixie Chicks tour of major arenas, 53 have already sold out and the remainder are on the verge of being fully booked.

Topple the War Profiteers

In 1917, at the height of World War I, Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette caused quite a stir when he suggested that one of the best ways to support the US troops fighting in Europe was to expose and challenge American corporations that engage in all forms of war profiteering. Even as attention is focused abroad on battles still raging, La Follette said, it is important to remain ever mindful "that there are enemies of democracy in the homeland."

"These," the Senator continued, "are the powers of special privilege that take advantage of the opportunity which war affords to more firmly entrench themselves in their control of government and industry. These interests are amassing enormous fortunes out of the world's misery."

More than 85 years later, America finds itself embedded in a very different conflict, yet La Follette's words still ring true. No matter what Americans think about the Bush Administration's preemptive invasion of Iraq, there should be broad agreement on the need to ensure that corporations do not turn the war and its aftermath into a bonanza for their bottom lines and a boondoggle for US taxpayers. In other words: Now that the statues of Saddam Hussein have been toppled, it is time to topple the war profiteers. But where to begin?

Recent days have brought news of the awarding of a contract worth up to $680 million to rebuild Iraqi roads, schools, sewers and hospitals damaged in the war. Bechtel, which is jokingly referred to in business circles as Bushtel, donated $1.3 million to political candidates during the last two election cycles -- with most of it going into the coffers of Republican campaigns, including the 2000 Bush for President effort. Surely, Bechtel is an attractive target for a Congressional investigation of war profiteering--like those begun after World War I and during World War II.

But if Congress is going to get serious about war profiteering, there is no better place to begin than the Texas-based Halliburton Corp. energy conglomerate that Vice-President Dick Cheney once headed. According to a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers released this week, a Pentagon contract given without competition to a Halliburton subsidiary to fight oil well fires in Iraq is worth as much as $7 billion over two years.

The contract allows Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, to collect as much as a 7 percent profit. That could amount to $490 million.

Cheney, who collected more than $33 million in compensation from Halliburton when he quit to become vice president--and who still receives deferred compensation from the company of about $180,000 a year--says that he has not intervened on behalf of his old company. And National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton says, "The White House has no role in selecting individual contractors."

But Kellogg Brown & Root has had quite a run of luck since the Bush Administration took over. The federal government and the Pentagon have paid the firm tens of millions of dollars to build cells for detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. And the company is earning hundreds of millions as the exclusive logistics supplier for the Navy and the Army, providing services like cooking, construction, power generation and fuel transportation. The best accounting so far available suggests that, between October 2000 and March 2002, the government awarded Kellogg Brown & Root work worth more than $624 million.

Two senior members of the US House--Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and John Dingell, D-Mich.--have asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to review contracts received over the last two years by Halliburton and its subsidiaries. "The ties between the vice president and Halliburton have raised concerns about whether the company has received favorable treatment from the Administration," Waxman and Dingell bluntly declared in their letter to the GAO.

The investigation of Halliburton should coincide with congressional action to tighten procedures for awarding government contracts and with steps to ensure that corporations are prevented from profiteering in wartime or its aftermath--as in World War II, when the chair of the Senate's Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program referred to war profiteering as "treason." That Senator was Harry Truman.

Riots? Looting? "Stuff Happens"

Suppose rioters were wrecking an American city, looting its hospitals and destroying one of the greatest museums in the world.And imagine if, as this happened, one of the nation's most prominent liberal excused the violence by saying, "Stuff happens," and then, when pressed, put a happy face on the looting by saying, "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes."

Would it take even 10 minutes for conservatives in Congress and the media to call for the head of the liberal official? How loudly would Rush Limbaugh condemn her irresponsibility? How many times would Sean Hannity blame her for the continued violence? Would Bill O'Reilly demand that the offending official appear to defend herself on Fox TV? Would House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, propose a congressional investigation, removal of the liberal leader, perhaps even criminal prosecution?

No one who has witnessed the faux patriotic policing of the discourse in recent weeks by America's conservative political and media elites could possibly doubt that such a response to rioting would send the yammering yahoos of the right into a frenzy of finger-pointing.

Yet when rioters were tearing up the U.S.-controlled city of Baghdad last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded by saying, "Stuff happens." Then, echoing statements of other Bush administration apparatchiks, Rumsfeld described the looting of the city as an "untidy" display of freedom. In response to questions about the first signs of chaos in the streets of Baghdad, the Secretary of Defense told Americans that they were seeing "a spontaneous outburst of the oppressed Iraqi people..."

On the day that Rumsfeld was declaring on live television that "free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes," rioters looted the Yarmouk Hospital, carting away not just beds, sheets and medicines but toilets and the ultrasound scanners. They ransacked the ministries of education, agriculture, planning, trade industry and information; and stripped the 10-story Foreign Ministry building down to its carpets. Then they carried the carpets out to waiting trucks. They emptied the shops on main retail streets. And they took -- or destroyed -- 170,000 items from Iraq's National Museum, which had housed a priceless collection of masterpieces and memorabilia dating back across human history from the time of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumarians, the Medes, the Greeks and the Persians.

Marble carvings, stone tablets, clay pots and tablets containing some of the earliest known examples of writing were destroyed or stolen. The pillaging of the Baghdad museum represented far more than an Iraqi loss. John Russell, an archeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, described the destruction as a blow to "the world's human history." Noting that the museum's collection included some of the earliest examples of mathematics and some of the first legal codes ever written, the British Museum's Dominique Collon described the damage in Baghdad as "truly a world heritage loss."

Items that survived 7,000 years of human history were lost last week in a city controlled by forces under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld. Yet Rumsfeld refused to take any responsibility. "We didn't allow it," he said. "It happened."

But did it have to happen?

Thousands of the finest soldiers in the world were in and around Baghdad. They could have protected government buildings, hospitals and the world's great archeological and historical treasures. (U.S. Defense Department officials had, months ago, promised top archaeologists from around the world that such protection would be provided at the museum.) And everyone agrees they would have had little trouble preventing the looting of key buildings. "The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened," said Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director.

That U.S. troops, many of whom were within blocks of the museum, were not given orders to protect is stunning to the world's great archeologists. "The Baghdad museum is the equivalent of the Cairo Museum," said University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson. "It would be like having American soldiers 200 feet outside the Cairo museum watching people carry away treasures from King Tut's tomb or carting away mummies."

But the troops were assigned to other tasks: such as pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein for the TV cameras and defending the building that houses the Iraqi Ministry of, you guessed it, Oil. (A March 25 release from the Marines described securing Iraq's oil producing regions as "one of the first objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom," and Rumsfeld has acknowledged at press conferences that securing oil wells was a top priority for the military -- inspiring a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion that read: "137 More Oil Wells Liberated for Democracy.")While the Ministry of Oil was protected, the National Museum was left to the looters.

When U.S. and allied troops took charge of the great cities of Europe during World War II, they proudly defended museums and other cultural institutions. They could have done the same in Baghdad. And they would have, had a signal come from the Pentagon.But the boss at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who had promised to teach the Iraqi people how to live in freedom, was too busy explaining that rioting and looting are what free people are free to do.

Wellstone's Graceless Replacement

A year ago this spring, I spent several days in Minnesota trailing US Sen. Paul Wellstone as he campaigned for a third term. Wellstone, the most progressive Democrat in the Senate, was battling against a full-scale assault from the Bush White House and its chosen candidate, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican, liberal-turned-conservative, activist-turned-insider, had a reputation as one of the most egregious political hustlers the state had ever seen. There were plenty of sordid tales to be told about the man White House political czar Karl Rove was packaging as the candidate of conservative principles, patriotism and traditional family values. Garrison Keillor, the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," referred to Coleman as "this cheap fraud" and, echoing the sentiments of a lot of in-the-know Minnesotans, said of Coleman's political ascension: "To accept it and grin and shake the son of a bitch's hand is to ignore what cannot be ignored if you want your grandchildren to grow up in a country like the one that nurtured and inspired you."

I asked Wellstone whether he thought that, considering Coleman's high sleaze factor, this intense Senate race might eventually focus on the personal and political foibles of the Republican nominee. "I won't let that happen," Wellstone said, with the warm drawl that his voice took on after a long day of campaigning. "Norm Coleman and I disagree enough on the issues. And I disagree with the Bush White House on the issues. I wouldn't want to win a race that focused on Norm's personality or his style. That's not right. Minnesota deserves better."

Wellstone was so determined to avoid cheap shots at Coleman that, even in private conversations, he refused to reflect on his opponent's foibles.

Minnesotans recognized Wellstone's grace and dignity, and polls suggested that they were preparing to re-elect him by a wide margin when a plane crash just days before the election killed the senator and his wife, Sheila, as well as their daughter, Marcia, and five others. The grief, confusion and political churn of the days following Wellstone's death created an opening that Coleman would not otherwise have had, and he won the Senate seat -- at least in part because he promised to honor his late opponent's legacy and hailed Wellstone as a "selfless public servant who embodied the best of Minnesota."

Now that he is settled in the Senate, however, Coleman's true stripes are showing. And it has become clear that, in addition to abandoning Wellstone's political principles, Coleman has also rejected his predecessor's reticence about taking political cheap shots at foes -- living or dead.

During an interview with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week, Coleman waved an unlit cigar in the air and declared: "To be very blunt and God watch over Paul's soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone," Coleman told the reporter. "Just about on every issue."

The reporter offered Coleman a chance to redeem himself by asking about the remaining 1 percent. But Coleman didn't bite. Instead, he complained about Wellstone's political independence. "Wellstone was never with the president," explained Coleman, referring to the Democrat's refusal to go along with the Bush administration's agenda. "I could be with the president most of the time."

The new senator even found time to dismiss the suggestion from some of Wellstone's grieving supporters that his replacement might want to maintain some of his predecessor's legacy. "They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away," Coleman said of Wellstone backers. "All you can do is say, ‘Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do and thank God I have a chance to be here.'"

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., described Coleman's remarks as inappropriate, disrespectful and "an unnecessary attack on a leader our state continues to mourn." She demanded an apology, as did 100 demonstrators who gathered outside Coleman's St. Paul office. Martha Bellou, one of the demonstrators, summed the mood up when she referred to Coleman "defaming the dead" and allowed as how, "Even for Norm this is a new low."

After first refusing to apologize, Coleman grudgingly acknowledged: "The people of Minnesota should expect more from this senator."

At least Norm Coleman was right about that.

Republicans at War -- With Kerry

Ever since US forces marched into Iraq, conservatives in Congress and their media stenographers have been at war with Americans who fail to read from the Bush Administration's political script.

US Sen Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, was ranting the other day about charging former MSNBC correspondent Peter Arnett with "treason," after the always controversial journalist gave a ill-conceived yet thoroughly inconsequential interview to Iraqi television. Then, last Friday, 104 Republican members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter demanding that Columbia University fire an assistant professor of anthropology whose extreme -- if not extremely significant -- statements against the US war had made him a favorite target of the New York Post's patriotism police.

Members of Congress, who should be performing their constitutionally-mandated advice and consent duties with regard to the war and its aftermath, are instead asking: "Would you like a witchhunt with those Freedom Fries?" By and large, the Republican torch bearers get points from their constituents and are written off as yahoos by everyone else. But there is a political point to this demonization of dissent and discourse. And it has been evident in the attempts to discredit US Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has emerged as something of a frontrunner in the race for his party's 2004 presidential nomination.

Kerry is not exactly a threatening figure. Indeed, the Massachusetts senator is less than the sum of his parts. He is reasonably smart, reasonably liberal, reasonably handsome and possessed of a distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War. This ought to make him a dream candidate for Democrats who are still casting about for an alternative to George W. Bush, who has no record of distinguished service -- in times of war, or peace. But Kerry tends to waffle on big issues -- he raised great questions about granting Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate sweeping new free-trade agreements, yet he voted for legislation authorizing Fast Track; he has expressed concern about threats to civil liberties, yet he voted for the draconian USA Patriot Act. He seemed to object to Bush's rush to war with Iraq, yet he voted for the October resolution that continues to provide the White House with a flimsy excuse for launching a preemptive war against a sovereign state.

So why are conservatives all hot and bothered about Kerry?

During a discussion at the town library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Kerry was campaigning in anticipation of next year's first-in-the-nation primary, the senator let loose with a comment that echoed posters, bumper stickers, campaign pins, reasonable magazine commentaries and casual comments heard across the United States in recent months. Speaking of Bush's inept approach to international relations in advance of the current war, Kerry said, "Regardless of how successful the United States is in waging war against Iraq, it will take a new president to rebuild the country's damaged relationships with the rest of the world," Kerry told the overflow crowd. "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States."

Turning the Bush Administration's rhetoric about "regime change" around on the White House has obvious rhetorical appeal -- especially among grassroots Democrats. The word "regime" generally refers to a government that lacks credibility because of how it came to power or how it exercises its authority. That description is one that many Democrats would apply to the Bush Administration. After all, George W. Bush failed to win the popular vote in 2000 and only assumed the presidency after the Florida recount debacle and a controversial intervention by a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court. Since they swept into Washington, the Bush team has been rocked by scandals linking key administration figures to corporate corruption, official secrecy, power grabs, assaults on Constitutionally-protected freedoms and abuses of the checks and balances system.

Kerry was not reading out a detailed indictment of the Bush Administration. Rather, he was discussing the challenge of repairing the US image abroad in the aftermath of what Kerry described as Bush's ''end-run around the UN.'' "I don't think (other nations are) going to trust this president, no matter what,'' Kerry explained. ''I believe it deeply, that it will take a new president of the United States, declaring a new day for our relationship with the world, to clear the air and turn a new page on American history.''

Coming in this context, Kerry's "regime change" was precisely the sort of savvy, somewhat-serious, somewhat lighthearted reference that a candidate who is in touch with his audience would offer. It certainly did not put Kerry, who is anything but adventurous, outside the circle of accepted discourse.

But this did not prevent conservative "message" teams, talk radio ranters and Republican members of Congress from spinning the senator's statement into a political firestorm that may well end up aiding Kerry's candidacy -- indeed, Kerry said it was a "pleasure" to be attacked by the chair of the Congressional Yahoo Caucus, House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who failed to serve in Vietnam but seldom fails to question the patriotism of Democrats who did wear the country's uniform. Delay can usually be counted on to embarrass himself and the House. But in the dispute over Kerry's remarks, Delay was not the source of the most ridiculously partisan statement. That came from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who said, "With our commander-in-chief facing a deadly conflict overseas, Senator Kerry's comments certainly cause one to wonder whether he has the sensitivity and the judgment commensurate with the office he seeks."

Frist seems to forget that US troops are the ones who are marching into a deadly conflict - just as Kerry did in Vietnam. President Bush, who like Frist successfully avoided serving in Vietnam, will not be hearing the sound of bullets any time soon. And it is absurd to suggest that the war effort could be threatened in any way by the suggestion that Americans may decide in 2004 to replace Bush with someone who has a little more military experience.

Ironically, Frist's attack on his Senate colleague contained the perfect rejoinder to the GOP criticism of Kerry. "Free and open discourse is one thing," Frist said, "but petty, partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain are highly inappropriate at a time when American men and women are in harm's way." Frist's silly grumbling about Kerry's sensitivity and judgment provides an exceptional example of what "petty, partisan insults launched for personal political gain" sound like.

War with Syria? Iran? No Way, Say Brits

Americans who have tried to get the Bush Administration to listen to their concerns regarding war with Iraq will sympathize with the millions of British citizens who have expressed anger at Prime Minister Tony Blair's willingness to bend to the foreign policy whims of George W. Bush's White House. At times, Blair and his aides are so pliant that they appear no more conscious or competent than members of the US Congress.

But fair is fair. Now that Blair's crew has gone along with the Bush Administration's war with Iraq, it is only reasonable that the American president and his aides accept the wisdom of the British with regards to the expansion of the war.

After Donald Rumsfeld, started ranting about Syria last week, international analysts -- along with astute domestic observers of the Bush team -- began to worry about whether this administration is already looking for another war to fight. That's an understandable concern, as the president himself has identified Iran and North Korea as members with Iraq of an "axis of evil." With the administration's neo-conservative gurus preaching a mantra of global governance that would have the US invading countries on a regular basis, it doesn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to foresee an ever widening war in the Middle East -- and beyond.

But the British, who have broken with most of the rest of the world to join the US invasion of Iraq, are not enthusiastic about starting a fight with Syria. Or Iran. Or any of the other countries that are in the sites of Bush, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the desk warriors in Washington.

After Rumsfeld ramped up the rhetoric with regards to Syria, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw announced that his country would have "nothing whatever" to do with military action against Syria -- a country with which Straw said the British had "worked hard to try to improve relations." Blair's foreign affairs aide also ruled out a war with Iran, another country that Washington has targeted for verbal assaults.

"Iran is an emerging democracy and there would be no case whatsoever for taking any kind of (military) action (against it)," Straw said.

The Bush Administration does not have a taste for genuine international partnerships where both countries have a place in policy making -- as the French learned when they raised questions about the president's rush to war. But the "special relationship" between the US and Britain may cause some in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon to pay attention to Jack Straw and the British government.

A great many Americans understand that it would be fiscal, political and practical madness to broaden the Iraq war into a regional struggle. But few Americans expect the president to listen to his fellow citizens on this question, as the Bush Administration has shown little respect for the demands of democracy -- or the Constitution. Thus, the best hope for wisdom to win out over presidential whim may rest with the prospect that a sense of loyalty on the part of Bush, Rumsfeld and their team to the administration's British allies will lead some in Washington to hear Jack Straw say "no."

Preaching the Party Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Shoot Movies, Not Iraqis'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against the Hijacking of Patriotism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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