Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Today a group of former senior diplomatic officials and retired military commanders--several of whom are the kind who "have never spoken out before" on such matters--issued a bracing statement arguing that George W. Bush has damaged the country's national security and calling on Americans to defeat him in November. It's too early to tell if the statement will have an impact on this fall's campaign. But Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change, as the group is called, reveals (again) how dangerously isolated the Bush Administration is not just around the world but even from America's own bipartisan foreign policy and military establishments.
This latest missive, as the LA Times and the Washington Post reported last Sunday, is being sent by Democratic and Republican officials who refuse to stay silent in the face of Bush's extremist and ideological foreign policy which, they say, is squandering America's moral standing. These signatories aren't exactly a Who's Who of the American left.
Jack Matlock, who served as Reagan and Bush 41's ambassador to the Soviet Union, has signed the statement, as has Ret. Adm. William Crowe, who served as Reagan's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar has added his name to the list, and he commanded US forces in the Middle East under Bush Sr. Phyllis Oakley, who served as a State Department spokesperson under Reagan, is another signatory. The vast majority of the signatories are, in fact, either conservative Republicans who served under Reagan and Bush 41 or they are bipartisan, consensus-driven ex-diplomats who served their country from Africa to Asia because they believed in America's leadership role around the world.
Now they feel so enraged by Bush's extremist foreign policies that they can no longer stand by as this Administration makes America less secure by upending alliances and alienating much of the world. Against the metastasizing scandal of Abu Ghraib; the botched postwar occupation of Iraq; and the Administration's lies about WMDs in Iraq in the run-up to the war, these old hands are now taking an uncompromising, intelligent stand against what they see as the most arrogant, unilateral and incompetent foreign policy in their adult lifetimes.
Today's signatories join a large and growing chorus of former senior officials who, as I first noted in a July 2003 weblog, were so enraged by Bush's conduct of the Iraq war that sitting on the sidelines simply wasn't an option for them. John Brady Kiesling, now a retired diplomat, led the charge in February 2003 when he courageously quit his foreign-service job with the American Embassy in Athens, and wrote a stinging rebuke to Bush's headlong rush to wage a war in Iraq. Then another career diplomat Gregory Thielmann went public, telling Bill Moyers that Iraq didn't pose an "imminent security threat" to America. Thielmann attacked Bush for hyping intelligence reports and for misleading the American people about the need to go to war in the Middle East. The Administration, he said, "has had a faith-based intelligence attitude.We know the answers--give us the intelligence to support those answers'."
Around the same time, retired military commanders were growing aghast at Bush's utterly inept lack of planning for the occupation of Iraq. That's why, for example, the former Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni ultimately went on 60 Minutes last month and argued that if Bush stayed on the current course in Iraq, America was "headed over Niagara Falls." Hoar, the retired Marine general, has publicly declared that the United States is "absolutely on the brink of failure" in Iraq.
Meanwhile, other former ambassadors and career foreign-service officers began speaking up, each in their own way and on their own timetables. GOP strategists with ties to the White House were quick and shameless in denigrating those who've spent their life serving the national interest.
Ronald Spiers, the former Ambassador to Turkey and Pakistan and well versed in the politics of the Middle East, argued that W.'s policies have unraveled our most important alliances around the globe. Spiers faulted Bush for causing us to lose "a lot of our international partnerships. We've lost a lot of lives. We've lost a lot of money for something that wasn't justified."
William Harrop, a former ambassador to Kenya and Israel, spoke for many in the diplomatic corps, and I suspect for even some former Bush I officials like Brent Scowcroft, when he said: "I really am essentially a Republican. I voted for George Bush's father, and I voted for George Bush. But what we got was not the George Bush we voted for." And former ambassador Joseph Wilson has reminded Americans of just how many lies the Administration was willing to make in its quest to convince people that Iraq posed a nuclear threat to the United States.
Then, of course, there are the high-level NSC officials who, after getting a ringside seat for Bush's bungling national security strategies, decided that enough was enough, and that now was the season to speak up and take a stand. Rand Beers left W.'s White House after serving under Reagan and Bush I, and he is now running foreign policy operations for John Kerry's presidential campaign. Richard Clarke, is one of the most experienced counterterrorism officials America has produced in the last three decades; he, too, could no longer stand idly by as the Administration pursued a fool's errand by starting a war against Iraq.
Just last month, as I noted in another weblog, a separate group of fifty-three ex-diplomats and other high-level national security officials wrote a letter to Bush in which they excoriated the President for sacrificing America's credibility in the Arab world and squandering America's status as honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
The statement issued today marks the high-water point of dissent among diplomats and military commanders who cannot stomach Bush any longer, but there is still time, and a need, for more high-level officials to come forward and voice their opposition to policies that are undermining our security.
The anger towards W., and the antipathy towards his extremely dangerous policies has now, at long last, reached a critical mass. Today's statement reveals just how extremist the Administration's approach has been, and the staggering stupidity of their radical ideologies. This letter is a profound wake-up call to all Americans: George W. Bush must be defeated.
Somehow it seemed fitting that the week former President Ronald Reagan died, the United States was named as one of the world's most serious violators of worker's rights. The other countries included some of the world's most repressive governments--China, Burma, Belarus and Colombia. According to an annual survey by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the US, "far from being a shining beacon of labor practices," is a country in which "trade union rights violations continue unabated." The report cited the "fierce anti-trade union behaviour" of several American companies, including firings, layoffs and threats of closure after workers sought better pay and conditions. ICTFU also reported that 40 percent of America's public employees, or 6.9 million people, are denied collective bargaining rights.
The same week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it is considering a radical change in the law that could further inhibit workers from exercising their freedom of association. The Board--three of whose five members were appointed by Bush--announced that it will review a case that reconsiders the long-used practice of forming a union through voluntary recognition. (In this process, companies agree to recognize a union that has collected signature cards from a majority of workers indicating their desire to join, without forcing workers to go through potentially contentious elections.) According to a statement from the newly formed group American Rights at Work, the NLRB's move could further expose workers to potential intimidation and harassment by employers,a common practice during union organizing drives. "Workers who want a voice on the job need more protection, not less," said David Bonior, Chair of American Rights at Work.
The modern war on labor, ruthlessly waged today by the Bush Administration, was launched by Ronald Reagan. His firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 set the tone for labor relations for years to come. And he appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board who were hostile to union organizing. As Harold Meyerson observed in the Washington Post, "Roughly a quarter of American workers belonged to unions when Reagan took office. When he broke the PATCO strike, it was an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got the message loud and clear--illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."
This past week, the United States joined some of the world's most repressive regimes as a violator of working peoples' rights and the NLRB threatened to radically weaken workers' freedom of association. That is Reagan's real legacy to the working people of America.
There's a stealth issue in this presidential campaign that could go far in determining the election results. I'm talking about the rising gas, phone, electricity, milk and cable prices that are damaging millions of hard-working families struggling to live in George W. Bush's America. In addition to paying $2-plus per gallon prices at the pump, consumers are getting squeezed at the supermarket--shelling out as much as $4 per gallon for milk.
Other staples are going through the roof. Since 1996, cable rates have risen 56 percent, besting inflation by nearly a factor of three. Sen. John McCain recently pointed out that consumers are getting bilked: "When it comes to purchasing cable channels, consumers have all the choice of a Soviet election ballot. One option: Take it or leave it."
According to an exhaustive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Enron and other electricity giants manipulated California energy markets to boost wholesale electricity and natural gas prices to make a financial killing. In 2001, electricity prices soared in the western United States, as blackouts became routine and millions of consumers got gouged. Looking ahead and perhaps no farther than next week, phone rates may well rise now that a federal appellate court has scuttled regulations that had saved consumers $11 billion annually on their phone bills. Bush has refused to appeal the phone rate court ruling, a decision that will virtually guarantee higher phone bills for nearly 50 million customers.
This Administration has sided with its corporate cronies on these and other issues. Under Bush many families have had to face tuition hikes, state service cuts and sky-high health care costs. Bush's tax giveaways have boosted the corporate bottom line and helped the wealthiest individuals. Hard-working families have received little to nothing in return.
This White House is addicted to deregulation. It has flung open the doors to its corporate contributors. Cronies like Enron's Ken Lay called the shots in the corridors (and commissions). The FCC's Michael Powell led the fight to raise the media ownership caps, generating momentum for corporate consolidation, stifling diversity and undercutting localism in communities nationwide. Despite valiant efforts by Democratic members of the FCC, the Commission has refused to take action on rising consumer cable rates.
Whether it's mad cow disease or dairy prices, the Administration stands pat while consumers take the hit.
The bitter fruits of deregulation are caught on the recently released Enron traders' tapes. Gloating about how they successfully cheated "poor grandmothers" out of their life savings, these traders show a cynical contempt for people. When one trader gets wind of a transmission line fire that caused a power failure, "Burn baby, burn" is his response.
But, so far, most politicians have failed to become the champion of consumers who are being hit hard in their pocketbooks where it hurts. One Washington communications lawyer told the LA Times: "If you tell this story as part of a larger discussion about the rising price of milk and gas, then suddenly three things make a pattern and you have a campaign issue."
Look at what happened in Florida--not an inconsequential state this November. When state regulators--at industry's urging--proposed a $350 million hike in phone rates, Floridians flooded those regulators with more than 7,000 letters decrying their decision. The regulators responded--they changed the decision.
According to some analysts, the issue of rising phone bills has the potential to sway the presidential race in four closely contested states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In Fort Worth, Texas, the cable manager received numerous complaints that the local provider Charter Communications was forcing large cable packages down people's throats, making consumers pay for channels they never even watched.
John Kerry ought to step up and confront the Baby Bells, cable companies and energy conglomerates. His recent statement against media consolidation suggests Kerry understands this is an issue that resonates with voters across the political spectrum. He could side with consumers who are under siege by an Administration that never met a regulation it didn't want to destroy.
But politicians, including Kerry, are lagging behind and failing to seize the opportunity to protect people's pocketbooks. In the meantime, we may see corporate greed and Administration-sanctioned gouging rousing consumers to take action. To paraphrase that great Paddy Chayevsky film Network, we may be at a moment when the American people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
For more information:
""Bush Backs off Rule that Eased Phone Line Fees"
Stephen Labaton, New York Times, June 10, 2004
"FERC Finds Widespread Energy Manipulation in 2000 Energy Crisis"
SRIMedia.com, March 27, 2003
"FERC Says Power Firms Maybe Gamed Markets"
Hil Anderson, UPI, Insightmag.com
"Rising Cable Television Rates Become Election Year Issue"
Bobby White, Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Texas Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 12, 2004
"Got Cash? Milk Prices on the Rise"
Donna Balancia, Florida Today, May 9, 2004
"Got More Money? Milk Prices Rising"
Romeo Cantu, KGBT4.com , June 8, 2004
"Could Telephone Rates Become a Campaign Issue?"
Jube Shiver Jr., LA Times, June 1, 2004
"Milk Still Fortifies the Bones, but What about the Wallet?"
June 7, 2004, Lydia Polgreen, New York Times
"Enron's Awesome Cynicism"
New York Times editorial, June 6, 2004
"Kerry Comes out Against Big Media....Sort of"
Timoth Karr, Mediachannel.org, June 9, 2004
Thursday's Wall Street Journal reports that "the American left is seeing signs of political revival" as Bush's economic and foreign policies alienate growing numbers of Americans. More people are identifying themselves as "liberals" while fewer are willing to call themselves "conservatives," a term many believe has lost meaning since the fiscal excesses and extremist policies of the Bush Administration have replaced traditional conservatism.
The Journal story reports that this shift in America's political identity is also reflected in the country's reading habits. As John Harwood writes, "The flagship publication of the left, the Nation, claims to have captured the highest circulation of any weekly political magazine." The article continues, "The Nation has seen its circulation grow to 160,000 from nearly 140,000 in mid-2003 and just over 102,000 in June 2001. The latest figure exceeds the circulation of longstanding conservative stalwart National Review, which is roughly 155,500, down from about 159,000 in mid-2001."
In a recent interview with Buzzflash.com, I had a chance to talk about politics, passion, principle, the role of The Nation, and my new book Taking Back America--and Taking Down the Radical Right, (co-edited with Robert Borosage).
Buzzflash.com is a progressive news headline and commentary site that has more than 3.6 million visitor sessions a month. It is dedicated to the principle that an informed public is essential to the preservation of our democracy.
The pioneering genius of political advertising, Tony Schwartz, used to preach that the most effective ads don't seek to convey information but to reach into the target audiences' mind to pluck the "responsive chords" already there. And Bill Schneider, the shrewd public opinion analyst, has said, "What the American people want most in a President is what they didn't have in the last one."
So perhaps one way of plucking the "responsive chords" of those four-in-ten Republicans who now say they would reconsider their support for Bush in November is to ask them such "responsive chord" questions as the offhand sampling below.
Would you rather have a President:
Who can change his mind when his vision of reality turns out to be mistaken? Or one who dares not change for fear of appearing weak?
Who believes that evidence necessary to justify a war has to be carefully weighed?Or one who is satisfied when his CIA director tells him the evidence is a slam-dunk?
Who fires advisors who have misled him? Or one who fears to reveal that he knows they have misled him?
Who asks a variety of wise men and women to advise him as well as God? Or one who thinks that it is enough that he hears and recognizes God's voice?
Who goes back to the Constitution for guidance on liberty and values? Or one who goes instead to religious fundamentalists?
Who, when considering healthcare policy, gives first priority to the health of children and parents? Or one who gives first priority to the interests of the drug and insurance corporations?
Who either confides in and trusts his Secretary of State or else replaces him? Or one who does not give his Secretary of State information that he discloses to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?
Who, when on 9/11 he hears that Washington and New York are under deadly attack, takes charge immediately? Or one who, not knowing what to do, goes on reading to a third-grade class he is visiting?
Who can remember his mistakes, hence moves to remedy them? Or one who says he cannot remember any, hence cannot do any remedying?
Who claims victory when it is won? Or one who claims it before it is won?
Who gives a high priority to humane programs like keeping veterans off welfare? Or one whose priorities run instead toward insuring that corporate contributors like Halliburton receive profitable contracts?
Who faces the media frequently and accepts the obligation to inform press and public? Or one who fears the press and relies on one-liners to divert it?
Who reads some of the newspapers that oppose--or support--him. Or one who does not read any paper?
Who seeks advice from a wide array of energy experts and experienced people? Or one who draws heavily on the oil industry?
Who tries to understand the variety of Americans and the variety of their problems and needs? Or one who thinks his circle of friends is representative of America?
Who appoints a diverse committee to investigate how 9/11 could have happened? Or one who stacks the committee with allies and cronies?
Hopefully some of these questions will spark some "responsive chords." I also welcome readers' suggestions for questions. Click here to send them to me (one per reader!) and I'll post a sampling in the coming weeks.
(I also want to thank Nation Editorial Board member Michael Pertschuk, the former Chair of the FTC, co-founder of the invaluable Advocacy Institute and resident of a battleground state, for his suggestion that we try this project.)
Clarification: Several vigilant readers have complained that my weblog of June 2, "It's Not a War on Terror," is inaccurate because I mention Roosevelt telling Americans during World War II that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. They point out that his famous remark, which went, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," was from his first Inaugural Address in 1933, as the country confronted the Great Depression. I was paraphrasing Roosevelt in a general, not time-bound, way to illustrate how he used hope and courage--not fear--to inspire and lead America through the war and the Depression. Roosevelt's belief that it was dangerous to exploit fear is as relevant to the war years as it is to the Depression. Just think of his idea of the right to freedom from fear, how he made that a pillar of his Four Freedoms--and stood by that belief during the war years.
A close friend writes: "Here is something I ran across in the new Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (sorry, I know poetry isn't your thing). It's in a note to The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, a famous poem in his first collection. In an interview from 1963, Lowell said, 'If I have an image for [America], it would be taken from Melville's Moby Dick: the fanatical idealist who brings the world down in ruin through some sort of simplicity of mind.' Now who does that remind you of?"
It's time to stop calling the post 9/11 struggle against terrorism a "war." Iraq is a (disastrous) war; Afghanistan was a brief one. But the struggle against stateless terrorists is not the same thing. And framing it as a war, as columnist Matt Miller argued earlier this year, "was a conscious decision made by Bush and Karl Rove and others in the first days after 9/11."
Rove understood that if the indefinite struggle against terror was generally framed as a "war," it would become the master narrative of American politics giving the GOP the chance to achieve "a structural advantage, perhaps in perpetuity" over Democrats.
The "war" metaphor, as retired American ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in a provocative piece last March in the Vermont Rutland Herald, "is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat.... A 'war on terrorism' is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics.... The President has found this 'war' useful as an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn't want to do; fuzziness serves the administration politically. It brings to mind Big Brother's vague and never-ending war in Orwell's 1984. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always-available tool."
It's easy to see how this Administration has used the "war" as justification for almost anything. Just last week, Amnesty International's annual report exposed how the US has been flouting international human rights standards, "resulting in thousands of women and men suffering unlawful detention, unfair trial and torture--often solely because of their ethnic or religious background"--and all in the name of the "war on terrorism."
Labor rights have also been rolled back on behalf of the "war." Remember that Orwellian statement by the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Security in announcing that the Administration had denied 60,000 airport security screeners their collective bargaining rights. "Mandatory collective bargaining," retired Admiral James Loy said, "is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war on terrorism."
As I watched the celebration of Washington's WWII memorial this Memorial Day weekend, I was reminded of how, during the despair of World War II, a greater threat to the existence of our country than what we face today, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, we all live in the shadow of September 11--a crime of monumental magnitude. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation; our response should not undermine the very values that define America for ourselves and the rest of the world.
This Administration has shamelessly exploited America's fear of terrorism for political purposes. ( It is as if, to paraphrase Roosevelt, this team has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.) But a hyper-militarized war without end will do more to weaken our democracy, and foster a new national security state, than seriously address the threats ahead.
Yet few political leaders have the courage to say that what we face is not a "war" on terrorism, or that this President, as Ambassador Spiers said, "has found this 'war' an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn't want to do." But by failing to challenge the "war" framing, we allow it to seep into the national psyche and let Rove and Co. get away with couching virtually all foreign policy discourse in terms of terrorism. The media also plays a role: "War" is the term used routinely not only by Fox "news" anchors and pundits but also in our top print outlets. It's then amplified in sensationalized TV wall-to-wall graphics.
It's a hopeful sign that John Kerry not so long ago questioned whether the "war" on terror is actually a war at all. "I don't want to use that terminology," he said. In his view, what we are engaged in is "not primarily a military operation. It's an intelligence-gathering operation, law enforcement, public diplomacy effort." Kerry is right. It is time to end this political hijacking of our language and concentrate on the real struggle ahead.
As Shirin Ebadi, a champion of women and children's rights, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and someone who has stood up to the fundamentalists in her native land of Iran, said the other day: "Governments don't just repress people with false interpretations of religion; sometimes they do it with false cant about national security."
See "Clarification" in the "Editors' Cut" for June 8.
You need look no further than the prisoner abuse in Iraq to understand the importance of the work of the Correctional Association of New York.
For almost 160 years, since a law passed in 1846 gave it the legal authority to do so, the CA has been visiting and inspecting New York State prisons and reporting its findings and recommendations to the State Legislature and the public. It usually follows up its reports with public education and advocacy in support of reform legislation.
Off and on over the course of the CA's history, it has had contentious dealings with state prison officials. But, since the summer of 1999, the relationship has been especially combative. In the past the CA would produce a report and the Department of Correctional Services would attack it, dismiss the findings, even villify the CA and its staff in the press and threaten the organization's access to the prisons.
The latest incident dates to last August. Shortly after receiving a draft copy of the CA's report Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons, officials in the Department of Correctional Services retaliated by imposing a range of restrictions on the organization's prison access, including how and with whom it can conduct visits, to whom it can speak during visits, and what part of the prisons it can see.
The Lockdown New York report, it's important to point out, powerfully documents the many problems plaguing the state prisons' punitive segregation units, especially the mistreatment and neglect of the disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who end up confined there for 23 to 24 hours a day for week, months, sometimes years at a time with little or no social interaction. The report documents extreme sensory deprivation; high rates of suicide and acts of self-harm; men in their underwear cowering in corners, mumbling incoherently; men ranting so feverishly that it was unclear whether they were insane to begin with--or driven mad by the conditions of their confinment.
It's too bad, isn't it, that the Correctional Association can't bring cameras into the prisons, rather than having to conjure up the images in words. But in important ways, the CA is our society's camera. Its representatives go everywhere in the prisons: the cellblocks, clinics, yards, visiting rooms, kitchens, program areas, punitive segregation units. Its members talk to prisoners and guards. (The CA's public education and advocacy program after the Lockdown New York report led to first steps toward more humane and sensible policies: The New York State Assembly passed a law banning the confinement of mentally ill people in disciplinary units; Governor Pataki also included an additional $13 million in his proposed budget for increased mental health services in the prisons.)
For months the Correctional Association tried "back channel" negotiations to resolve the dispute with the State, but prison officials remained intransigent on key issues involving access. Finally, in March, the CA sued in federal court, asserting that the State had effectively violated its First Amendment right to exercise free speech. The judge in the case has urged both parties to meet and seek a negotiated settlement; the CA has engaged in these meetings. What the outcome of these discussions will be is not yet clear.
So far legal fees for the case have amounted to over $100,000 (and that despite the 25 percent discount offered by CA's lawyers, Emery, Celli, et al.) Since these costs were not budgeted, the CA must find a way to find untapped sources to cover them.
In my view, speaking as both a longtime board member of the CA and as a concerned citizen, it's crucial that the Correctional Association prevails in this case, not only so that it can regain its access to our prisons--so critical to the organization's valuable work--but also to send a message that the state government's ugly, bullying tactic doesn't carry the day. For information on how you can help, click here or contact Susan Gabriel at the Correctional Association at 135 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003, 212-254-5700 or email@example.com.
If only Candidate Nader were Citizen Nader. That's what I kept thinking as I listened Monday evening to his speech delivered in the citadel of America's establishment--the Council on Foreign Relations. When Nader castigated Bush for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" by misleading the nation into a war "based on false pretenses," it may have been the truest thing ever uttered in the mahogany-paneled chambers of the CFR.
But while the message is strong; the medium is wrong. As The Nation has repeatedly said, America's consumer rights crusader got the important thing wrong when he decided to run for President this year.
At the Council, the mood was as if an exotic animal had loped into the building. Nader was greeted sourly by some, apprehensively by others, warily by many. A few leading Democratic Party fundraisers had come to check out his current message. Former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson sat in the front row--and seemed to welcome Nader's nod to Sorenson's recent book which includes a section on America's unmet needs. The crowd of about 150 people included affluent investment bankers, lawyers and assorted journalists and foundation types.
Peter Osnos--publisher of Public Affairs Books--introduced the speaker with a quip about how few people have enjoyed Nader's "political durability." He mentioned three others--"there's Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan and Jesse Jackson." And to put it candidly, Osnos said, "lately Nader has been driving many of his admirers nuts."
It wasn't only his admirers who looked like they'd been driven nuts. At times, it was as if the elaborately framed portraits of former Council chieftains like David Rockefeller were rattling on the wall as Nader issued a ringing call for Bush's impeachment.
In his speech, "Waging Peace, Advancing Justice, Promoting Security & the Civic Displacement of Corporate Globalization," (or as he joked, "how to twist the tail of the cosmos in 20 easy minutes"), Nader criticized the phony handover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30th and called on the White House to set a date to end its military and corporate occupation of Iraq.
In the Q & A period, Nader was grilled by several people about why he's running in a year in which the stakes are so high. Wouldn't he be a spoiler, as he was in 2000? (Readers of this space know his answer.) Nader's response that he could gain support among Republican and conversative voters disgusted with this administration was met with palpable skepticism. And, stubborn as ever, Nader didn't bend on his message that on the fundamental issues that affect the future of our democracy, the differences between the two parties are still virtually indistinguishable.
"Yes, the parties are polarized on social issues and access to civil justice and rights, but both parties have sold our politics to the highest bidder and are unwilling to challenge sovereignty of corporations over people. The rhetoric is different; the reality is not." That comment elicited a slight hissing in the room. Later Nader said, somewhat contemptuously: "We've been completely abandoned by liberals."
Nader's speech netted a story in the New York Times, which focused on Nader's call to impeach Bush. But there were a few other tidbits:
* Nader thought it was hopeful that there was "increasing rebellion among retired foreign policy and intelligence officials," and that "this war was waged against the considered opinion of so many of them."
* Nader consciously attempted to cloak himself in President Eisenhower's legacy by drawing a connection between his speech and the General's classic speech warning of the military-industrial complex. Any talk of cutting our bloated military budget is more taboo today than it was twenty years ago, Nader rightly observed. (He referred the crowd to the work of Columbia professor Seymour Melman.)
* The "drive to war" represented the "fragility of our democratic institutions. The "lack of any deliberative process by the US Congress, the lack of an investigative process by the media--which clicked their heels" is a "severe scar on our democratic process."
* The Founding Fathers, Nader said, "did not want the declaration of war put in the hands of one man."
* "The last war that Congress declared was the War on Poverty." If our institutions of government had worked, we might have avoided this quagmire, he argued.
* We have a messianic militarist as a President; and our re-engagement with the world is hindered because Bush talks like "an out-of-control West Texas sheriff" and has a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and for our constitution," Nader stated.
* Saddam was the US's dictator. The US supported him as a bulwark against Communists, Nader stated, and we averted our eyes to his atrocitieswhen it suited our strategic needs. "The economic sanctions imposedon Iraq were a clear violation of international law and contributedto the deaths of thousands of children."
* He decried the Administration's exploitation of fear since 9/11: "To say that President Bush has exaggerated the threat of Al-Qaeda is to trip into a political hornets' nest." But it is time to raise the "impertinent question" about whether we've seen a vast exaggeration of the threat of terrorism" for the purpose of fulfilling the GOP's agenda. "Chill the other party; chill dissent; distract attention from domestic necessities and from the fact that a lot of corporations who are pouring money into Bush's private kitty get a lot of contracts; and Bush maintained his position in the polls--until recently."
* Citing William James, Nader made the case for why "we need very, very strenuously the moral equivalent of war." We need a humanitarian foreign policy, he argued. It should be a "shame on our conscience that we can't find billions to pursue the goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, that we can't find the money to take on the greatest assault of WMD that is heading our way: tuberculosis, pandemics heading from China which will take hundreds of thousands of lives here, millions there."
* Nader has finally woken up to the possibilities of the internet, quipping that "Other than the use of the internet, presidential politics hasn't had an innovation since TV makeup."
* He believes that he will be on as many state ballots as in 2000.
* Asked about the veepstakes, he followed up on what he said on ABC This Week. "I think Kerry should pick Gephardt or Edwards. Either would help him. They're both good on their feet, have their own constituencies, and are already vetted."
* Called on people to support the work of Citizens' Debate Commission to challenge the two party corporate control of the debates. (Do it at least as an antidote to insomnia, he urged, prompting some laughter in the hall.)
* He spoke little about his recent meeting with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, but did say that when he asked Kerry how he would push through his energy independence policies,in the face of oil and gas and other energy lobbies, Kerry told him, "Just let me get in the White House and I'll use the bully pulpit." "I told him I just didn't think that was a sufficient answer."
The applause at the end was wary and light. Nader may have been invited into the citadel but he was not welcome for long. On the sidewalk outside, a lone Green Party member was leafleting. I didn't see anyone taking.
When I wrote about South Dakota populist Stephanie Herseth in this space in April, the polls showed her well ahead of her rightwing rival in the race to finish out Bill Janklow's Congressional term. And, although she still leads in the contest for South Dakota's only US House seat with less than two weeks left before the state's special election on June 2, new polls indicate that the race has narrowed, in large part due to the 1.5 million dollars spent on television advertising by national Republicans anxious to hold onto the seat.
Click here to read "A New Populist on the Block," my weblog detailing why Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions (although she isn't perfect--as some readers pointed out in smart comments.) And click here to donate urgently need funds to counter her opponent's war chest.