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(Daniel Pollitt, who is professor of law emeritus at the University of North Carolina and my uncle, sent me his reflections on The Blogojevich-Burris flap. I figured I should put them up before New York Governor Paterson selects his own personal Senator.)
The F.B.I. was bugging Illinois Governor Blagojevich and recorded him commenting that the opportunity to name the Senate replacement for Barack Obama was "golden" (apparently there is no one offering a pot of gold for the appointment).
On this, Democratic Senate leaders announced that anyone appointed by Blagojevich would be "tainted" and would be denied a seat in the Senate. The Illinois Secretary of State piled on, saying he would not sign or affix the State Seal to any Blagojevich appointments.
This brings to the forefront the almost-forgotten 17th Amendment which calls for Senate election by the people, rather than by the legislature. It also provides two alternatives when "vacancies happen" in the Senate. One, the Governor calls a special state-wide election, (expensive), or two, the legislature empowers the Governor to make temporary appointments until the people vote in the next general election (inexpensive).
Illinois went for the inexpensive one.
The governor exercised his authority under the Constitution and Illinois law to appoint Roland W. Burris to fill the Obama vacancy.
Burris was the first African-American to win statewide public office in Illinois: Comptroller, and then Attorney General. In the 1970 Attorney General race, he took a controversial stand on behalf of free choice and the rights of gays and lesbians. He enjoyed years of public life without one iota of taint and few vocal enemies.
Burris went to Washington on "swearing in" day, was escorted to the office of the Senate Secretary by the Sergeant of Arms and told he could not be seated because he lacked the credentials required from the Illinois Secretary of State. Burris earlier had filed suit against the Secretary of State, now pending in the Illinois Supreme Court, requiring that the credentials be delivered.
Burris left the Capitol and met the press in the rain and mud of a nearby park. He captured the headlines. His was the opening story on network news. Democratic leader Harry Reid back-pedaled fast. President-elect Obama wanted an "amicable solution" and Reid met Burris the next day.
Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the number-two Democrat, was present. Reid said the Senate would consider the appointment if Burris would do two things: get the Illinois Secretary of State to sign his credentials, and convince the Illinois legislative panel, considering impeachment of Blagojevich, that there was no quid pro quo in his appointment. So there it stands, with promising outcomes for all.
All this brings to mind some earlier legislative exclusions, fortunately, few in number.
1. The New York Socialists. There was a "Red Scare" following World War I. People were concerned about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and its consequences at home. In 1920 five Socialists were elected to the New York legislature. The legislature refused to admit them because they were Socialists, and ordered new elections. The five won again, with increased majorities. The legislature, for a second time, refused to seat three of the five and the other two resigned their seats in a show of solidarity.
Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican standard-bearer in the 1916 presidential election, leaped to their defense, as did Senator (later President) Warren G. Harding, who told the press it would dangerously abridge American liberty "to deny a place in any state assembly or in Congress to any man eligible to the office and honestly elected thereto."
2. Victor Burger was denied his seat in Congress because he opposed our participation in World War I. He was a Socialist and publisher of several German-language newspapers in Wisconsin. He was convicted in 1918 under the Espionage Act because of his editorials opposing the war with Germany. In the same year he was elected to Congress from Milwaukee. Congress refused to seat him. He was elected again in the special election to fill his own vacant seat, but was turned away once again. The Supreme Court reversed his Espionage conviction in 1921. The "Red Scare" was abating and Burger was elected to three more terms in Congress.
3. Julian Bond also was victimized because of his opposition to war, the one in Vietnam. Bond was a ranking member of SNIC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a militant student organization opposed to Jim Crow laws and the Vietnam War. In the early 1960s, SNIC issued a statement that it sympathized with and supported men "who are unwilling to respond to a military draft." Bond was asked about someone who burned draft cards. He said he admired the courage of someone "who could act on his convictions knowing that he faces pretty stiff consequences."
Bond was elected to the Georgia Legislature, but was denied his seat on the theory that, because of these statements, he could not conscientiously take the required oath "to support the Constitution," as required by Article 6 of the Constitution.
Bond was elected a second time in a special election to fill his vacancy, and was elected a third time when the next regular election rolled around, always to be excluded.
Bond sued and the Supreme Court ruled for him. The Georgia legislature may require an oath to support and defend the Constitution, indeed it must. But a majority of the legislators may not question the sincerity with which a minority colleague takes the oath, since this, as here, would restrict the free speech right to differ on significant controversial issues.
4. Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the prominent socially active Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, was elected to Congress in 1944, one of the two Black members. He was reelected time and time again with increasing majorities.
Well-liked and regarded by his constituents, the same was not true with many of his House colleagues. He was a troublemaker. Early on he tried to eat in the Members (all white) dining room. He repeatedly introduced embarrassing "anti-lynching" bills. He was flamboyant, arrogant, and wore no man's collar.
His downfall began in 1960 when he denounced a woman named Esther James as the Harlem "bag woman" for white gamblers. She sued for libel in the New York courts, and won a large verdict. Powell refused to pay and was held in contempt of court. (As the Exclusion resolution read: he asserted "unwarranted privilege and immunity from the processes of the Courts of New York".)
By 1966 the Congressional seniority system moved him to the chair of the important Committee on Labor and Education. He sometimes abused his power.
Powell took pleasure junkets at public expense. He scheduled Committee hearings in Miami for Friday afternoon and Monday morning at Congressional expense and would then fly for the weekend with a female committee staffer to Bimini. As the Exclusion Resolution put it: "he wrongfully diverted House funds for the use of others and himself."
Powell also gave his estranged wife (who lived in Puerto Rico) a no-show job on the Committee. This was wrong. Staffers must work either in Washington or the Congressman's district. These were the essences of the charges made when the House voted to exclude him in 1967.
Powell took the case to court. The Constitution provides that "Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications" of its own members.
Powell argued that the term Qualification is limited to the Qualifications set forth in the Constitution: age, citizenship, and residence. The House argued "oh no." Qualifications must include "misconduct" of the type at issue here. The Supreme Court ruled for Powell.
After a lengthy discussion of the early English experience, the debates at the Constitutional Convention, and Congressional practice going back to 1797, the Supreme Court held that despite all else, the House had no authority to exclude Powell. Why? Because he met the Constitutional qualifications of age, nationality, and residence.
Powell went back to Congress.
Words of Our Founding Fathers
The holding that Congress can exclude only if the candidate lacks the required age, citizenship, and residency requirements resonates the words of our Founding Fathers during the debate on the Constitution.
The debate emphasizes that the three qualifications of age, citizenship and residence were intended to be the exclusive qualifications for office, and that neither the Congress nor the states could add or subtract there from.
Listen to their voices.
John Dickinson of Delaware opposed any statement concerning "qualifications" because it was impossible to make a complete list, and a partial one would prevent the legislature from supplying the omission. He proposed that future legislatures be free to establish qualifications "as time and experience should prove necessary."
James Madison argued to the contrary that the "qualifications of electors and elected were fundamental and ought to be fixed in the Constitution." "Legislative bodies," Madison continued, should not have the power to usurp "the indisputable right of the people to return whom they thought proper."
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed one additional "qualification," that the legislators must have "a specified amount of unencumbered property." This was defeated when Benjamin Franklin said that some of the greatest rogues he knew were the richest.
The framers agreed that some members might betray the trust committed to them and the most effectual means for "preventing their degeneracy" was not by adding qualifications "as time and experience might prove necessary," but through the "restraint of frequent elections."
Congress has heeded their voices over the years.
Only in times of crisis or panic has the Congress excluded an elected member for reasons other than age, citizenship, and residence.
During the Civil War, Congress resolved that "fidelity to the Constitution" is a qualification for membership in the House.
Members of Congress from the Confederate states resigned but John Brown and John Young from Kentucky were excluded in 1867.
In 1882, the Edmunds Act provided that no "polygamist shall be eligible for election or hold any office under the United States." In 1900, Brigham H. Roberts was elected to the House. "Over 7,000,000 American men and women" protested against the "polygamist from Utah" and the House refused to set him.
The hysteria subsided and in 1903 Reed Smoot, also a polygamist from Utah, was elected to the Senate and seated because there was no question about his age, citizenship and residency qualification prescribed by the Constitution
Since then, Victor Berger and Adam Clayton Powell are the only ones denied their seats in Congress for reasons other than age, citizenship and residence. Over the years, Congress has heeded the words of our founding fathers. Would that our Democratic Senate leaders had done the same, when Governor Blagojevich first appointed Roland Burris to the Senate.
Shame-faced, they ultimately did the right thing; all's well that ends well, and the Burris episode might deter such future transgression.
Thanks to all who donated to the Giving Page I set up at donorschoose.org., the website where public school teachers propose classroom projects and donors -- that's us -- help fund them. So far we've raised $1349! It's not too late to add your mite --any amount is warmly welcomed. You can help bring a production of Macbeth to a NYC school, buy a classroom library for Philadelphia 8th graders, buy guitars to revitalize jazz at a Baltimore school once famed for its music program, and more. all projects are in high-poverty schools. Send me your receipt for $50 or more, and I will send you a signed copy of Learning to Drive, my collection of personal essays.Just go here:http://www.donorschoose.org/donors/viewChallenge.html?id=20459
I love the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day of community service rather than a day to shop for bargains on mattresses and sweaters. The USA Service website lists all sorts of opportunities, but by the time I logged on most of the actual organized events in New York City were full, and somehow, lugging a bag of old clothes to the Housingworks thrift store, apparently our town's backup proposal for latecomers, lacks that certain thrill.
So in the spirit of the day, I offer some classroom proposals from Donorschoose.org as a challenge to those of you out there who are in the same fix as me: you want to honor MLK Monday-- and Inauguration Tuesday-- but haven't quite found the way. As you may already know, Donorschoose.org is a website where teachers put up their classroom needs, and donors--that's you -- can give any amount they want to fund them.
I hope you'll check out my Giving Page here. I've focussed on high-poverty schools around the country.You'll find opportunities to fund supplies for the only debate team in the South Bronx, guitars to rebuild a once-famous music program in Baltimore, classroom essentials for Chicago kindergarteners and more.
Ps. Send me your receipt for $50 or more, and if you are one of the first 10, I'll send you a signed copy of Learning to Drive:And Other Life Stories, my collection of personal essays, or Virginity or Death! my most recent collection of Nation columns.
It couldn't have been easy for Bill Ayers to keep quiet while the McCain campaign tarred him as the Obama's best friend, the terrorist. Unfortunately, the silence was too good to last. On Saturday's New York Times op-ed page, he announced that "it's finally time to tell my true story." Like his memoir, Fugitive Days , "The Real Bill Ayers" is a sentimentalized, self-justifying whitewash of his role in the weirdo violent fringe of the 1960s-70s antiwar left.
"I never killed or injured anyone, "Ayers writes. "In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village." Right. Those people belonged to Weatherman, as did Ayers himself and Bernardine Dohrn, now his wife. Weatherman, Weather Underground, completely different! And never mind either that that "accidental explosion" was caused by the making of a nail bomb intended for a dance at Fort Dix.
Ayers writes that Weather Underground bombings were "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam War." That no one was killed or injured was a monumental stroke of luck-- an unrelated bombing at the University of Wisconsin unintentionally killed a researcher and seriously injured four people. But if the point was to symbolize outrage, why not just spraypaint graffiti on government buildings or pour blood on military documents?
Spectacular violence, and creating fear of it, was the point. Along with beating people up and ridiculous escapades like running naked through white-working-class high schools shouting "Jailbreak!" It was what the Weatherpeople were all about.
"Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war," Ayers writes. " So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends." I'm not so sure that terrorism necessarily involves intentional attacks on people, but okay, let's say Ayers wasn't a terrorist. How about thuggish? Vainglorious? Egomaniacal? Staggeringly irresponsible? And illogical, don't forget illogical: as Hilzoy points out, the idea that because "peaceful protest" hadn't ended the war, bombs would is missing a couple of links. It's like a doctor saying, Well, chemo didn't cure your brain tumor, so I'll have to amputate your leg. It's not as if there was nothing else to try, after all. While Ayers and Dohrn were conveying their outrage, other people were doing the kind of organizing work that the Weather Underground despised as wimpy. Today Ayers blends himself into that broader movement, the "we-- the broad we" that "wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at inductions centers" etc., but at the time, Weatherpeople had nothing but contempt for the rest of the antiwar left. Writing letters? Off the pig! you might as well... become a community organizer!
I realize this is ancient history. As a friend who doesn't see why I am raking this all up argues, it's not as if today's left is bristling with macho streetfighters. It's hard to imagine anyone now applauding the Manson murders, as Dohrn notoriously did in l969, or dedicating a manifesto to, among others, Sirhan Sirhan. But just because it's ancient history doesn't mean you get to rewrite it to make yourself look good, just another idealistic young person upset about the war and racism. We were all upset about the war and racism. I knew people in the Progressive Labor Party who were so upset they joined the army to radicalize the troops. A freshman in my dorm was so upset she quit college, joined the October League, and went to organize in an auto-parts factory, where last I heard maybe a decade ago, she was still at work. Of the many thousands of people involved in the movement one way or another, only a handful thought the thing to do was to form a tiny sect and blow things up in the service of a ludicrous fantasy : ie, creating a white-youth fighting force that would join up with black nationalists, end the war and overthrow capitalism. Oh, and anyone who didn't see why that was the right,necessary and indeed only possible course of action was a sellout and a coward.
I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left. Not another "regrets, I've had a few," "we were all young once," "don't forget there was a war on" exercise in self-promotion, but one that showed he actually gets it. I'd like him to say he's sorry for his part in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society. He's sorry he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people. He's sorry for his more-radical-than-thou posturing, and the climate of apocalyptic nuttiness he helped fuel to disastrous results, of which the fatal Brinks robbery, committed by erstwhile comrades who became even crazier than Ayers' crew, was only the most notorious.
True, the damage wrought by the Weatherpeople is trivial compared with the war itself and has arguably been more thoroughly denounced. After all, John McCain most likely killed civilians while bombing Vietnam, and he got to run for president as a war hero. Henry Kissinger is fawned upon wherever he goes. I'd be happy to forget all about the Weatherpeople, many of whom have done good things with their lives since. But if we're going to talk about them-- and Ayers can't leave it alone-- let's tell the truth. Of all the sectarian groups from that era , Weather, in all its permutations, was the least effective and the most destructive to the movement. It was all about the romance of itself. And it still is.
In the endless debate over abortion, we can forget the concrete reality in which pregnant girls and women so often live. Feminists for Life and other anti-choice groups make it sound as if an unwanted pregnancy is just one of life's little challenges --some baby clothes, some food stamps, some campus housing for college-going moms and tots, and everything will be fine. It's usually not so simple. The appeal below popped up in my inbox this morning. It's from the DC Abortion fund, which raises money for low-income women's abortions.
"Nickie" needs a lot of things -- beginning with a family free from domestic violence -- but one thing she doesn't need, or want, is a baby. Her pregnancy places her at risk in all kinds of ways.Can you help her? Even five dollars, added to the donations of others, would make a difference.
You can donate here.
Emergency Case - DC Abortion FundDecember 2, 2008DCAF Needs Your Help!LOCAL TEEN NEEDS EMERGENCY FUNDS TODAYDear Katha,
I am writing to you today because a DCAF case manager has been working with a young woman who desperately needs your help. Nickie* is 17 years old and attends a special needs charter school because of severe behavioral and emotional instability. Nickie was referred to DCAF by a counselor because of concerns that she may harm herself trying to self-abort. Several adults in Nickie's life, including her principal and doctor, believe it is in Nickie's best interest that her family not discover her pregnancy due to domestic violence in her household. They also firmly believe that her abortion is a medical necessity due to the emotional and behavioral challenges Nickie faces every day. Her mother has also threatened to kick Nickie out if she were to become pregnant.
She will be 25 weeks pregnant on Thursday, the absolute gestational limit, and her surgery costs $3,600. Nickie has raised $250 from friends and a part-time job but is looking to DCAF and her community for support. Because Nickie cannot ask her family for financial help, it has been extremely difficult for her to fundraise for her procedure.Please help 17 year-old Nickie today with as generous a contribution as you can make! Thursday is her last chance to have an abortion, so please make a contribution immediately!
We need to raise $3,350 by this Thursday, December 4, 8:00 AM. Please consider making as generous a donation as you can.
Tiffany ReedPresidentDC Abortion Fund
* Name changed for privacy
For the Election Day causes I've written about here and in my column,there's good news and, well, not so good news.
First the hurrahs. By a whopping 69%, Milwaukee voters passed a binding referendum requiring private employers to give workers nine paid sick days a year (employers of fewer than ten workers must give five days). Workers can use their days for themselves or for or a sick child or other relative. They can also use them to attend to medical and legal issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.
Congratulations to 9to5, which spearheaded a dynamic coalition of union and community groups, and waged a terrific grassroots campaign . Milwaukee now joins San Francisco and Washington DC in taking this bold step to create a healthier and more humane workplace for its citizens, and offer an important helping hand to women and to working parents.
More to cheer: In South Dakota, as you know, the proposed abortion ban, which would have criminalized all abortion minus a few narrowly tailored and unworkable "exceptions," was resoundingly defeated, as were anti-choice ballot measures in Colorado and California. South Dakota is a very conservative state, home base of the very energetic Leslee Unruh, founder of the Abstinence Clearinghouse and leading motivator of anti-choice activism. It speaks volumes that even there the majority of voters decided to stick with Roe v Wade. Voting on a law is not the same as telling a pollster how you feel. South Dakota voters had an opportunity to think through the arguments on both sides, and to their credit, they did. The ban was defeated by just over ten points -- a wider margin than that by which the even more extreme 2006 ban went down.
Not so happy news from South Dakota: none of the four native American women running for the State legislature, to whom many Nation readers donated generously through Womenrun! South Dakota, won their races. Theresa Two Bulls, two-time Senator, lost her Senate race when Jim Bradford, whom she had beaten in the Democratic primary, switched his party affiliation and ran as a Republican. But -- silver lining! Two Bulls defeated Russell Means for the presidency of the Oglala Nation in what Womenrun! director Laura Ross describes as "a hot race down in Pine Ridge."
What next for womenrun? Laura Ross writes:
Well, we learn more each cycle we participate. As I mentioned earlier, I hope the state party will start being productive again and I'm guessing from what I've heard on the ground that there will be a needed change of leadership there. Dem candidates have messages but the party hasn't seemed to have one in a while and that's no way to run against organized, message-heavy Republicans, no matter how wrong they are for the state. I've heard from a number of women who, after watching others step up the past two cycles are feeling much more confident about getting involved and running themselves, whether for those ever important environmental and energy spots in the county commissions - right now those are vastly held by men, county treasurer seats by women - or in the legislature. So, we need to get more training done and encourage more women to come to Pierre during the legislative sessions. Indigenous Women's Political Caucus will be there, I'm pretty sure, as will, I hope, the newly organized SD chapter of Natl. Women's Political Caucus. There are task forces that meet outside leg sessions that are always poorly attended both because people don't know they're happening and because they don't have resources to sometimes drive a couple hundred miles to get to them and pay for a hotel stay. There are panels appointed by the Governor who meet many times, as with hearings on new uranium mining, but people can't get there because of costs. Those who can show up will make the difference but they have to ableto show up, too.
you can donate to build this grassroots movement and keep connected here.
Another way to be connected is to join the Friends of the Pine Ridge Reservation . This web-based group participates in drives to help social service organizations, clinics and schools on the reservation, one of the poorest places in the United States. You can help preserve the lLakota language, fund tuition for a nursing student at Oglala Lakota College, support the many activities and outreach programs of the Cangleska women's shelter, make sure children (and grownups) have books of their own by sending books to the build-your-own-library project, and much, much more.
Election Day is around the corner, so if you still have two dimes to rub together, you have just a few days to send them where they can still do good on November 4. I'm sending mine to Women Run! South Dakota. This is the umbrella organization for progressive pro-choice Native American women running for the state legislature: among them, Charon Asetoyer, Faith Spotted Eagle, Theresa Spry, Diane Long Fox Kastner, and incumbent Senator Theresa Two Bulls (the first, and so far only, Native American woman elected to the State Senate,now running for a third term). These are community organizers (take that, Sarah Palin!) with deep local roots, long-time activists on women's health, domestic violence, native american rights, and poverty issues. They would bring progressive grassroots leadership to a state where women currrently make up only 16% of the state legislature (and only four of those women are pro-choice), Native americans have long had trouble exercising their right to vote, and where not coincidentally, rightwing politics, including repeated attempts to make abortion a crime, have been the rule for far too long.
Here's WomenRun's Laura Ross on the situation on the ground:
"Last week the smart and delightful Lonna Stevens of Wellstone Action and Wellstone Native Leadership was good enough to fly over and do a few nonpartisan Native voter engagement trainings with me in SD. We were at Kyle one day (near Pine Ridge), Rapid City the next and finally at Lower Brule, smack on the gorgeous Missouri River. Organize organize organize! All was good. Voter reg is way up this cycle and everybody eager to learn how they can do more. It was great to have so many Native students at the trainings right next to candidates and others who've been community leaders for so long. ...
"Things are rolling on the Initiated Measure 11 battle, which would ban nearly all abortions in SD and set up a legal challenge to Roe. The other day a reporter from Pierre wrote about the many legal shortcomings of IM 11 and said, Well, if it goes down then the next legislature can address them and either pass a new ban or send it back to the voters again. Indeed. We've known for some time now here at WR!SD, that it matters who is sitting in the state legislature shaping the laws affecting reproductive freedoms and health, education and environmental policy. We know there will be more bills seeking to limit women's access to good repro health and that, yes, if the ban fails they'll just bring it back to the legislators again. Its hard work to be there fighting off these bills, I've been there, but if our candidates were to win in 10 short days from now we know they'd have our backs at the next legislative session. Maybe IM 11 will go down but like Dracula will arise again in the halls of the Capitol in January and this time we'll have reinforcements, we hope!
"As I noted earlier we're focusing hard on organizing efforts for Early Vote/GOTV and am especially concerned about that vast District 21 where we have two candidates, Charon and Diane. There is little to no money for GOTV in SD this cycle so we're scrambling to do what we can with very little. Very little. In District 21 our candidates are counting on voters in the 3 First Nations (Lakota/Dakota/Ihanktonwan) within its borders to help bring it all home. Last cycle WR!SD was able to help in a big way with gas and food for those working to get out the vote but it seems most money is floating up this year and we're left darned short for this enormous task. The people we need to reach simply do not have the resources - many are happy to help with time and efforts, if they had a tank or two of gas, but many times folks struggle to get to the polls at all and count on GOTV workers to get them there. Voter suppression and poverty are real players in elections here - in part why the ACLU has sued 9 times in 9 years over the Voting Rights Act - to help level the playing field. One person one vote is harder to achieve than it sounds, it takes vigorous organizing and election protection. And we need those votes. We're doing all we can but need help with Early Vote and Get Out the Vote in Indian Country. Theresa Spry still needs some help with GOTV, too, and is working hard to make do with what she's got but I'd hate to see her lose that Rapid City district by a skinny again for lack of a bit of gas $$, you know? She would be the first Dem to hold that Senate seat in many years!"
The WomenRun! website is down as I write -- keep checking it for updates and information. Meanwhile, you can donate to WomenRun!, and to individual pro-choice South Dakotan women candidates, at their Actblue page.
Don't let lack of gas money keep these fine candidates out of the state house!
UPDATE: Donate $50 or more to WomenRun! and I will gladly send you a signed copy of Learning to Drive, my collection of personal essays, just out in paperback. Just send the receipt and your address to me through email@example.com and I'll pop the book in the mail.
More update: The WomenRun! website is up -- with the latest news on the candidates, the SD electoral scene, and a donation button to make your giving hassle-free.
From Salon's War Room comes this quote of the day, from Iowa's Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, a Democrat:
"Sarah knows how to field-dress a moose. I know how to castrate a calf. Neither of those things has anything at all to do with this election. But since we know so much about Sarah's special skills, I wanted to make sure you knew about mine too."
What cool things can you do that have nothing to do with being Vice President or, Lord help us, President? It doesn't have to involve animal bloodshed. Can you write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform? I can't, but I can whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore. And leap tall buildings at a single bound. Plus, I've been to many foreign countries, to say nothing of New Jersey, which I can actually see from my house.
Maybe I should be Vice President!
John McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate shows how desperate he is to distract attention from the fact that he is a cranky old man with nothing to offer but more of the same. Palin is a blatant pander for the women's vote. He must think we have the collective IQ of a Tampax.
Sure, Palin is cool -- she's pretty and vivacious and athletic, a former beauty queen who runs marathons, hunts , fishes and eats mooseburgers, plus she's got five kids with unusual names like Willow and Track, including a newborn with Down's syndrome. I feel tired just thinking of what her daily life must be like, and if she were my neighbor I would probably like her a lot. It shows how deeply feminism has penetrated American culture that even anti-choice, right-wing-Christian women are breaking out of the old sugary-submissive pastel-suited stereotype. And if life were a Lifetime movie, Palin would do just fine running the country should McCain keel over. Girls can do anything! and look great doing it!
But seriously. Vice President? After a stint as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of less than 8000, and barely two years as governor of a state with more grizzly bears than people? She makes Obama's resume look as thick as Winston Churchill's.
Here's the reality: Palin is a rightwing-Christian anti-choice extremist who opposes abortion for any reason whatsoever, except to save the life of the girl or woman. No exception even for rape, incest, or the health of the woman. No exception for a ten-year-old, a woman carrying a fetus with no chance of life, a woman on the edge of suicide-- let alone the woman who is not ready to be a parent, who is escaping domestic violence, who is already stretched to the limit as a single mother. She wants to force over one million women and girls a year to give birth against their will and judgment. She wants to use the magnificent freedom the women's movement has won for her at tremendous cost and struggle--the movement that won her the right to run those marathons and run Alaska -- to take away the freedom of every other woman in the country.
Her selection does not tell us McCain is a "maverick" who is just stringing the Christian right along, wink-wink. It tells us that he has thrown in his lot with James Dobson, the Family Research Council, the Catholic hierarchy and others for whom criminalizing abortion is the number-one issue. His record of votes against abortion and birth control--125 votes out of 130 in his Congressional and Senate career-- apparently wasn't quite enough for them. By choosing Palin, he wins their enthusiastic support.
McCain is gambling that women will vote their gender, and not their interests.
I expect pro-choice women will see through this gambit pretty fast. If not, we really are as dumb as he thinks we are.
Michelle Obama's performance Monday night was spectacular. She was confident, warm, relaxed and eloquent, also smart, beautiful,radiant, gracious, stylish, humorous and tall. I want to be her when I grow up. She accomplished, seemingly effortlessly, what she had to do: she replaced the angry-black-Pantherish terrorist- fist-bumping Michelle of right-wing (and not only right-wing) fantasy with Michelle, the normal, everyday, working-class-rooted loving wife and (working) mother. She presented herself and her family -- her parents, her brother, her daughters, and her husband -- as part of an ongoing all-American story of devotion to faith, family, hard work,community, sports, and, yes, country.
When she talked about her childhood--her father and his slow deterioriation from multiple sclerosis, her parent's hopes and sacrifices for her and her brother--I cried. I know, I know, how hokey that is, but I'll bet all over America, people were wiping their eyes.
In her column about the speech, even Mona Charen paused momentarily in her Obama-bashing labors to declare herself moved and impressed. Then, of course, it was back to business: Michelle's 1985 Princeton senior thesis, the Rev. Wright, a quotation from a New Yorker profile suggesting that Michelle Obama thinks America has some problems--because that is just so, so not true.
About that thesis: How desperate must conservative pundits be that they are combing this ancient document for traces of black militance? How would Mona Charen like to be judged by a paper she wrote in college? Christopher Hitchens joined the hunt in a particularly unhinged and paranoid column in Slate back in May. Beginning with a lordly sneer at young Michelle's prose ("not written in any known language"), he seizes on a passing acknowledgment of Black Power, a book which Stokely Carmichael co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton in l967, to tie her to Carmichael's subsequent career as a black-nationalist Pan-African separatist, and thence to African dictators, antisemitism, Louis Farrakhan and the murder of Malcolm X.
I should have written about this column when it first appeared, but frankly, I didn't want to join the let's all-talk- about-Christopher-incessantly circus. I was remiss: It was a low, disgraceful smear, tantamount to accusing a writer who cites Marx of being a Soviet spy-- or, for that matter, a man who briefly attended a nominally Muslim school in childhood of being a secret Muslim and best friend of Osama bin Laden.
First Ladyhood is a retrograde job, sort of like being the national spokesmodel. Still it's a great thing that an accomplished black woman might soon be taking it on. It doesn't speak so well of the electorate, though, that Michelle Obama has to hide her light of career-womanhood and, yes, African-American experience under a great big bushel of bland middle-American family-values conformity. The whole speech was about reassuring white Americans that she was just like them, (as they imagine themselves to be): none of her relatives are on drugs or welfare or in prison.
For all her evident-but-never-specified professional success, she's basically a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother: black people have families! If you closed your eyes, the only way you'd know she was black was her emotional reference to Martin Luther King. According to her brother's video introduction, her favorite TV show as a child was The Brady Bunch. Whew! What if it had been Soul Train?
I would love to see Michelle Obama living in the White House and representing America abroad. But she must really love her husband-- and believe that business about being the change you want to see in the world -- -- to be willing to spend four, or even eight, years soothing white America's racial and gender anxieties.
Monday, August 25
Good Omen: the people sitting in front of me on the plane read The Nation! Anna and Russ from Washington DC are coming to the convention as tourists. Apparently a lot of people are doing this. Who knew? Anna and Russ are huge Obama fans, and (like everyone I will meet today) are confident he will win in November. For extra fun they've brought along their two year old, Juliet. Brave souls. "What do you say about George Bush?" says Anna, using her singsong mommy voice. "Do you remember what we call George Bush?" I imagine it's something not too favorable, but Juliet, who has clearly already begun her life in politics, just gives a diplomatic smile.
You're not supposed to write about interviewing cabbies, which is too bad because the extremely good-looking and cheerful Somali driver who takes me into downtown Denver has a lot of interesting things to say about American intervention in Africa that I'll just keep to myself. But I have to report that, like most of the taxi drivers I've met in the last year, he's for Obama. "America used to be admired all over the world. It's fixable! If foreign policy changes, America is America again." Put that way, it sounds so simple. "If he loses, it's because of race. When people say 'we don't know who he is' -- that's race. When people say, 'he's really a Muslim' -- that's race. He went to a Christian church for twenty years, but he's really a Muslim? What kind of a Muslim is that?" Not for the first time, I'm struck by how many ordinary people not only have as much political acumen as most pundits, but have learned to talk like them too. Why can't this driver go on TV, and Chris Matthews drive a cab?
While waiting to check in at the Comfort Inn, I look around for possible interviews. "Are you a delegate?' I ask a well-padded, carefully-casually-dressed man who is visibly suppressing his annoyance at the slowness of the check-in process. He smiles at my naivete. "Major Donor." While trying to fathom the mindset of someone who would describe himself this way--donor, ok, but major donor? Isn't that a little vain?--I latch on to Jeffrey and Brian, who look to be in their late forties, and tag along with them to the Convention Center for the Gay Caucus meeting, already well under way. Like many gays, they were Hillary supporters from way back; Jeffrey describes them carefully as "warming up " to Obama. What are their issues? "The economy," says Brian instantly. "The war." What about gay marriage? No! they say practically in unison. "Civil union is fine -- it's the benefits that matter," says Brian. I guess he doesn't read Andrew Sullivan. "There are a lot of other issues that matter more," adds Jeffrey. Such as? "Anti-discrimination laws, hate crime laws, Don't Ask Don't Tell."
The gay caucus is held in a large brightly lit underground room. It's well attended; the audience looks youngish, hip, attractive. A long row of credentialed journalists and bloggers are arranged at a prominently placed table, where they type furiously on laptops as a series of upbeat, energetic speakers culminating in charming, dynamic Rep. Tammy Baldwin -- take the podium.
How different is the rural caucus, held next door. Attendance is sparse; there's lots of polyester; no table of bloggers. In fact, there's only one other journalist here, a writer for the Dallas Morning News. As I come in, An older gentleman with an unfortunately soft and monotonous voice is going through a long list of McCain's bad votes on issues affecting farms and farmers (in this room, ethanol is good). But the next speaker, Tony Dean of Sportsmen for Obama, is riveting. Dean is short, white-haired, rotund and he has one of the great old radio voices-- rich, warm, genial, friendly--which is not surprising, because he is a radio announcer, formerly of stock-car and Nascar racing, more recently of Dakota Back Roads, a popular and much-honored show about fishing and hunting.
"I used to be a conservative Republican," he begins, and swiftly moves on his support for South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, his father's love of quail hunting and his mother's passion for fishing (every Saturday and Sunday!), and his long and interesting life in radio. I'm not sure where all this is going, but I could listen to him all day. And sure enough, there's a point: "This is the most important election of my lifetime. I'm not sure fish and wildlife can survive eight more years of George Bush." Dean talks about the ongoing destruction of the regulatory system that protects forests and water: "There's a clear connection between fishing and clean water." He talks about the reliance of small rural Dakota towns on the tourist dollars from hunters and fishermen and winds up with global warming: "It's real." Mallards that used to appear in vast numbers in South Dakota by October 1, the day the hunting season starts, now stay in Canada till January.
What a terrific speech! I not only want to vote for Obama more than ever, I want to go fishing too. In South Dakota. While it still has fish.
Next stop: the Equalitea hosted by Feminist Majority, NOW, the National Congress of Black Women and other women's groups. I get here too late for the speeches and tribute to Stephanie Tubbs Jones, but I do get a chance to chat a bit with Kimberle Crenshaw, legal theorist and law professor. Kim's field is affirmative action, and she has lots to say about what's wrong with the currently fashionable argument that race- and gender-based affirmative action should be replaced with preference based on class.
People talk about class when they talk about race, she tells me, but not when they talk about women. "Does class protect women? Did it protect Hillary? You can be a multimillionaire and still suffer the effects of discrimination because you're a woman." Most affirmative action is about government contracts in construction and the like, she goes on, not about getting into college or law school. In the six years since California passed its ban on affirmative action, women and minority-owned businesses have lost 1.4 billion dollars in government contracts. Yet white women voted for the ban, making white women the only demographic that voted against its own interests. Sigh! Read Kim's terrific take down of Ward Connerly in Ms. magazine at www.aapf.org.
I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea-- like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. "What about those PUMAs?" I ask.
"There has to be some reality here," Ellie says exasperatedly. "Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now."
"You'd think none of them ever worked in an office," adds Mavis. "You have to compromise!"
Smeal herself is totally on board with Obama: "This is a progressive, positive ticket." She heaps praise on Biden, whom she has known for years as a friend of feminism, a supporter of women in his own family, and an all-around wonderful person, who is "deeply, deeply against the war."