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Nation Now Alerts

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Jefferson's Curse

As John wrote a few days back, William Jefferson was one of the worst Democrats in the House even before he started hiding bribes in the freezer. Now he's a drag on his party and a disgrace to his district--which happens to represent much of storm-ravaged New Orleans.

Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi rightly asked Jefferson to resign from his seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson refused, writing: "I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain political strategy."

What an absurd defense. If Jefferson cared about adequately representing the residents of New Orleans, he wouldn't have taken bribes to enrich himself and crooked politicians in Nigeria. As the government's case against him intensifies, how can he possibly represent his constituents effectively? Isn't helping to rebuild New Orleans enough of a full time job?

As John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly, told the Washington Post: "It's not a very good reflection on the state to have your congressman accused of taking bribes at the same time Louisianans are trying to get money out of the federal government."

Now, more than ever, New Orleans deserves better.

Prince Wins

Best performance on American Idol's finale: Prince--preening, prancing and dancing.

Most astounding fact: 63.4 million votes were cast for the two finalists. Show host Ryan Seacrest boasted this was "more than any president in the history of our country has received. "

One blogger semi-facetiously suggested that maybe we should just cast votes in the next Presidential election via cell phone and text messaging. (And what, have the NSA do the vote count?) Idol's "elections" are already the focus of charges of fraud and voting manipulation. (In 2004, after millions of potential voters weren't able to register their choices in the final round when regional phone systems were swamped by the number of calls, Broadcasting & Cable magazine called the Idol voting system "about as reliable as Florida's in the 2000 Presidential election.")

This year--with suspicion more muted--Alabama's very own Taylor Hicks won. (Thereby confirming Judge Simon Cowell's prediction and ensuring that Cowell will become even more delightfully insufferable next year. ) Hicks--who the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes likens to Captain Kangaroo--fervently thanked his "Soul Patrol" supporters who rooted for him. His victory, which kept up the South's winning streak on the show, has already inspired a wave of blogs like the one I read last night, " Aladamnabama has all the kick ass people in it. This just helps prove it."

Just what we need. Pop/rock culture Southern triumphalism.

Last night it was worth sitting through a cheesy celebration of high powered karaoke and corporate plugs to watch the grand talent assembled on stage to sing along with the Idols--Mary J. Blige. Toni Braxton. Al Jarreau. Live. Meatloaf. Burt Bacharach. Dionne Warwick. And, of course, Prince was in the building.

Frist Goes Ape

At least Bill Frist will have something to fall back on when that presidential run doesn't pan out: operating on gorillas.

Just look at these cute pictures. Wearing safari-themed scrubs, the robotic Frist almost seems lovable. "Gorillas, people, men," Frist tells the Washington Post while operating on the 350-pound Kuja. "You look at the people here, a symphonic flow of people pitching in. It's the oneness of humanity."

He sounds like a new age James Dobson. It almost makes one forget about Terri Schiavo. At least this time when Frist gave a diagnosis, he examined the patient.

"Frist lifted Kuja's huge, leathery black hand," writes Laura Blumenfeld. "Williams, the dentist, said, 'Take him with you to the Senate, so when Biden or Kennedy mouth off, you can turn him loose.'"

"'He's on my side,'" Frist said, stroking Kuja's fur."

Better a gorilla than the American people.

Save the Planet, But Not Too Much of It

This week Wal-Mart announced a gift of half a million dollars to help protect 28,000 acres of forest in Idaho and Washington, as part of the company's ongoing Acres for America program, run in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The first thing to be said about this move -- and, more broadly, Wal-Mart's involvement in Acres for America -- is, of course, that it's good for the forests, and shows that by relentlessly criticizing a company, activists can force it to do some decent things. However, I couldn't help recalling a recent conversation with Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, author of The Home-Town Advantage.

When I asked Mitchell, some months back, what she thought of Wal-Mart's environment-friendly gestures,she said that the best thing for the planet would be for Wal-Mart to stop building new stores. Noting that the company was adding millions of square feet of new retail space, most of which would be built on cheap land outside of town centers, necessitating millions of additional car trips for consumers, Mitchell compared the company's simultaneous environmentalism to "the person who buys a car that is 25 percent more fuel efficient and then drives it twice as much, and expects us to applaud."

Speaking of driving, I noticed an interesting little "public service announcement" on walmartfacts.com, the website set up by the company to diffuse progressive criticism. Gas prices and global warming got you down? Don't even think about getting out of that car; just motor on over to Wal-Mart and get your tire pressure checked.

This seems to be the environmental non-solution du jour. (Though, actually, there's a plethora of competitors: how about those Starbucks ads empowering us to buy more efficient lightbulbs?) Just yesterday, former Wal-Mart director Hillary Clinton attempted to steal Al Gore's thunder on global warming with a breathtakingly unimpressive energy speech. (Gore's global warming movie opens in New York tonight.) Like Wal-Mart, Hillary urges us to take action against global warming by checking those tires. Pathetic.

Ace Up Its Sleeve

Note to Alberto Gonzales: there is a reason it's the FIRST Amendment. Nevertheless, on Sunday the attorney general played the ever-reliable ace up the administration's sleeve to throw even freedom of the press into question.

Gonzales stated on ABC's This Week, "… it can't be that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity."

When in doubt, scare the bejeezus out of the American people.

The only way to beat the bad guys is to [fill in the blank]… torture… engage in domestic spying… use black sites… and now, perhaps, prosecute journalists who uncover the truth about the Bush administration's programs that are laying waste to our constitutional rights and freedoms. By this logic, what can't the executive branch do?

Gonzales commented on going after reporters who publish leaked classified information, "There are some statutes on the books which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility…. We have an obligation to enforce those laws."

Seems the entire administration was taught to read by George Bush.

The statute Gonzales obliquely alludes to is the 1917 Espionage Act. James Goodale, one of the leading First Amendment lawyers in the nation, writes that in order to indict journalists under this law, "[It] would require activating a relic from the Espionage Act…. The law is meant to prevent the publication of how the U.S. breaks codes…. It is so broad, in fact, it is probably unconstitutional. For this reason and others, the NSA or CIA has never used it against the press."

But the Bush Administration has other ideas, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently pointed out: "As its poll numbers fall, the Bush Administration is ratcheting up its war against the media to hide its massive failure to defend the nation's security and uphold the laws of its Constitution." An added absurdity is that, "… Administration officials decide which classified information they, personally, are entitled to leak and which information they can try to suppress, even to the point of threatening jail."

So, when the administration wants to leak the name of a covert CIA operative to the press, that's fine and dandy. And if it wants to prosecute reporters who are exposing dangerous abuses of power– nothing troubling about that either.

The bottom line is this: to the Bush administration, our rights and freedoms are a matter of convenience subject to their review. And they simply don't want the press meddling in their affairs. But if we are to preserve our rights and liberties, then meddle we must.

Health Held Hostage

Today's New York Times features a scary full page ad. The bold type headline, over large photos of Reverends Falwell and Robertson and James Dobson, reads: "Meet America's Most Influential Stem Cell Scientists." The ad is sponsored by DEFCON--a new and valuable online grassroots movement designed to combat the religious right 's threat to American democracy.

This campaign is needed now more than ever. Our health is being held hostage by an extremist minority. It's been a year since the bipartisan Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was passed by the House. Since then, it's been blocked in the US Senate-- held hostage by political opportunists like Majority Leader Frist, who seem to care more for their political health than that of millions of American children and families. Polls show overwhelming support for stem-cell research.

Even more important, at a time when our Constitution is under daily assault, it's worth remembering that we elect leaders to put their hand on a Bible and swear to uphold the constitution--not the other way around.

As DEFCON'S ad starkly tells us: "Not since the Dark Ages have religious zealots held such dangerous power over scientific research."

It's time to end this immoral and unhealthy obstructionism. Go to DEFCON's site and tell Frist and these religious extremists like Falwell and Dobson what you think.

Joe Lieberman's Very Bad Year

Joe Lieberman's year just keeps getting worse.

After he emerged as just about the only member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- who is enthusiastically on board for the Bush administration's hellride in Iraq, local Democratic party groups in Connecticut began passing resolutions criticizing the Democratic senator's pro-war stance.

Lieberman and his aides said the grassroots Dems were just letting off steam.

Then, the senator attracted an able Democratic primary challenger in the person of progressive businessman Ned Lamont.

Lieberman's organization said Lamont would never get on the ballot.

Then, at the state Democratic convention over the weekend, Lamont got more than twice as many votes as he needed to secure a ballot position.

Lieberman backers noted that their man got the most votes at the convention and said the inside-the-party revolt would not translate into trouble in the August 8 Democratic primary.

Now, Democracy for America, the organization formed from the base of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination -- which, notably, did a lot better than Lieberman's presidential quest of that year -- has given a strong endorsement to Lamont's challenge.

"Ned Lamont has been loud and clear about America's position in Iraq and world affairs, one of the most important concerns for voters," says Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, and the brother of the man who now heads the Democratic National Committee. "Senator Lieberman has been a broken record supporting broken policies."

While the Democracy for America endorsement will help with fund raising and volunteers, it certainly isn't going to give Lamont everything he needs to win a primary. By every measure, the challenger still faces an uphill race in a state where Lieberman has been a central figure in the Democratic Party for four decades.

But the senator is feeling the heat. On Monday, he dropped out of the MoveOn.org web primary, in which members of the group are being asked to express their preference in the race -- as they did early in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod. No one doubted that he was seeking to avoid another setback.

Nor does anyone doubt that the man the Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000, and who looked at the start of the year like a sure bet for reelection, is going to have to fight to be the party's nominee for his own seat in 2006.

A True Test of Character

If John McCain becomes President, his current chief of staff, Mark Salter, will be one of the most important figures in the new White House. The two have authored three books together. They are best friends.

So when Salter calls the student keynote speaker at McCain's commencement address "an idiot," it reflects directly on McCain.

The outburst provides a simple truth about a Senator who can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the media. McCain, despite all the hype about his character and the totality of his life experiences, doesn't handle criticism well. His temper tantrums are legendary on Capitol Hill. The Arizona Republic, his hometown newspaper, once labeled his outbursts "volcanic." So too are the deep grudges he holds against his enemies.

As McCain faces growing resistance in his second bid for the Presidency, something other than the "straight talk" side of has begun to reappear. Jean Rohe, the courageous New School student, was correct when she responded that Salter, as McCain's proxy, was trying to "hurt my feelings and frighten me into silence."

"I don't believe that anything I've written to the public so far has been quite as nasty to Senator McCain as Mr. Salter was to me," Rohe continued in her latest Huffington Post diary. "On the contrary, I think that my writing clearly reflected my values, which is to say, never was I rude to the Senator nor did I show any disrespect. In fact, I think my compassion was made clear. To pick on me in such a bullying and sarcastic way is a clear admission on Mr. Salter's part that his fear is far deeper than any I might have felt when sticking up for myself."

Tarring college students hardly befits a leading Senator or his top aide. The post-New School outburst raises serious questions about whether we want this man's finger on the nuclear trigger.

You Heard It Here First

You Heard It Here First

This morning on WNYC, host Brian Lehrer and guest Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, were chatting about Wal-Mart's entry into the organic food market (stay tuned for a Nation feature on this subject in our upcoming special Food Issue). As people often do when discussing Wal-Mart, Lehrer and Fishman segued into the subject of the company's crummy health insurance, and the burden it places on taxpayers, who end up footing the bill when Wal-Mart workers have to turn to the public dole for health care. (According to the retailer's own statistics, 46% of the children of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid, or uninsured.) Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, the national groups now attempting to reform the company, are working in states and towns all over to pass Fair Share Health Care laws, to compel Wal-Mart to insure its employees more generously. But, Lehrer suggested, and Fishman concurred, wouldn't it be great if Wal-Mart used its immense lobbying muscle to agitate for national health care?

According to an excellent article, in the June Atlantic Monthly, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which funds Wal-Mart Watch, is hoping to force Wal-Mart to do just that. The company could neutralize a lot of progressive criticism this way, and if we did get a single-payer plan out of the ensuing fracas, we'd all be better off. I have made this very point on this very website, as well as, more than a year ago, in the aforementioned Nation/Economist debate on Wal-Mart, which was moderated by Brian Lehrer. But the point is not just to toot our own horn (well, perhaps a passing, staccato toot); rather, that it's delightful that this idea is catching on.

After all, let's be realistic: the Fair Share for Health Care campaign is a fine way to make the point that health benefits ought to be taken out of competition, but it isn't going to solve the dire problem of spiraling health care costs in America. Given that Wal-Mart has no intention of complying with the new laws, and will mount legal challenges to each and every one, Fair Share makes more sense when viewed as a means to an end, and that end should be national health insurance. In recent speeches, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has said that the cost of health care in America is a larger problem demanding more leadership from "government." Let's see how far he's willing to go.

Let's see, too, how far labor will go. In his new book, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch argues that unions haven't made serious efforts to organize for national health insurance; indeed, they have often opposed it, for a combination of self-interested and ideological reasons. (This goes way back: Samuel Gompers argued that national health insurance had sapped the "virility" of British workers.) If we are to have meaningful health care reform, that attitude needs to change. Pressuring Wal-Mart is a good place to start.

In related news, Target has just announced that it intends "Wal-Mart-like" changes to its own health care plan, and may eliminate traditional health insurance for employees. This underscores the urgent need for single-payer healthcare, and the need for continued pressure on Wal-Mart, the industry leader that sets the standards for its fellow retailers.

When McCain Attacks

John McCain is renowned for his supposedly thick skin and deft handling of adversity. Who knew a 21-year-old student singer from Nutley, New Jersey, could pierce that veneer?

As the undergraduate keynote speaker at the New School's graduation ceremony, Jean Sara Rohe had planned to talk about her love of music and the need for "social responsibility in a time of war." But realizing she would be speaking right before McCain, she tore up her prepared remarks at 2 am the night before to directly address McCain's support for the Iraq war, visit to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and fidelity to George W. Bush. According to her diary at Huffington Post, she saved the new text as "mccain speech subversive.doc."

Meeting McCain in the green room before the ceremony "he didn't even make eye contact when we shook hands," Rohe recalls. "So I figured I didn't owe him anything."

As we chronicled on Friday, Rohe's speech was daring, eloquent and brave. She gave voice to students whose opinions, at their own graduation, were not consulted, and whose views are no longer represented by presidential candidate McCain.

"Had he been speaking at something other than our graduation, or had he spoken about almost anything other than his life and his position on the Iraq War and Darfur it might have been OK," Rohe later wrote. "But what did he expect? Campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination at the New School is like trying to catch fish in a swimming pool. It was just totally out of place."

After the address, McCain and his aides were at their most vindictive. "I feel sorry for people living in a dull world where they can't listen to the views of others," a pompous McCain told the New York Times. Later, in a comment on Huffington Post, his chief of staff Mark Salter called Rohe "an idiot."

"It took no courage to do what you did," Salter wrote. "It was an act of vanity and nothing more." The graduating class deserved a strong rebuke for its "comical self-importance."

George W. Bush smeared McCain in 2000. Now McCain is returning the favor to college students.

The so-called maverick Senator is so busy cozying up to the right, he can't even take a little heat from the left.

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