Mickey Kaus, in his inimitable permalink-free way takes a shot (kind of) at the Democrats' stated plan for attacking the growing inequality in America, a phenomenon which has finally, miraculously ascended to the status of Serious Issue. Basically, the proposals on the table aren't exactly radical. We're not talking some kind of social democratic reordering of the American welfare state. The basics are raising the minimum wage, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, expanding the EITC, expanding Pell grants for higher education, and reforming labor laws.
Kaus' objection is both that these are too little and too much. He zeroes in on one item, the proposal to make it possible to form a union by getting a majority of workers to sign a card asking for one, as a bridge too far. Card check, he writes, "could dramatically change the structure of the American economy for the worse, spreading unprodctive, legalistic, Detroit-style union practices (work rules, promotion by seniority, protections for lousy workers, etc.) by subjecting non-union workers to thuggish peer pressure."
Kaus is correct that card check is the most potentially radical proposal on the table, but wrong about its effects. Due to lax enforcement of labor laws, and their inherent weakness, it's become virtually impossible to organize a union through the traditional NLRB election process. In fact, it's gotten so bad that a lot of unions, most notably those in the Change To Win coalition have pretty much given up on NLRB elections, preferring instead to use PR campaigns to pressure employers into agreeing to "neutrality," meaning they'll allow a union election without actively campaigning against it. The Employee Free Choice Act would make neutrality the law, and more than any other single piece of legislation help revive the American labor movement. It seems to me that it's simply impossible to really address inequality in America without a robust labor movement.
Also, aside from the libelous implication that union organizers are "thuggish," Kaus seems to think that more unionization will lead to more companies tied down in expensive, sclerotic labor contracts like those that are killing GM. But it's not the union contracts that are killing GM per se, so much as it's the old corporate welfare state model of employer-backed health insurance and pensions, a system that is proving destructive in an era of globalization.
Jacob Hacker has proposed one solution, a form of universal insurance that would package together insurance for a variety of the uncertainties Americans increasingly face: from the risk of a catastrophic illness to job loss due to technological change. Kaus is right that as a package, the Dems' proposals aren't going to solve the inequality problem. But universal insurance combined with stronger unions would go a long way.
In today's Washington Post columnist George Will lectures Virginia's newest Senator for his boorishness. His evidence? Wednesday's Post report that at a recent White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb "tried to avoid President Bush," refusing to pass through the reception line or have his photograph taken with the man Webb had often criticized on the campaign trail.
When Bush asked Webb, whose son is serving in iraq, "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq." When the President again asked "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "That's between me and my boy."
Now Webb had a reason for what he did. As he told the Post, "I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall. No offense to the institution of the presidency, and I'm certainly looking forward to working with him and his administration. [But] leaders do some symbolic things to try to convey who they are and what the message is."
Will considers the incident on the White House reception line and concludes that Webb is a "boor" and has shown a "patent disrespect for the presidency."
I'd argue that Webb--as Senator Chuck Schumer put it the other day (perhaps failing to understand the irony of his statement)--is "not a typical politician. He really has deep convictions."
And conviction and courage and, yes, a maverick Senator who's willing to upend the false civility of inside-the-beltway rituals are what's needed in these times.
President Bush's war of choice has put Webb's son's in harm's way. Why shouldn't Webb refuse to shake that man's hand--or seek to be used in a photo-op?
In his column/lecture, Will says the new Senator "might consider this: In a republic, people decline to be led by leaders who are insufferably full of themselves." Seems to me that applies to the current occupant of the White House--not the new Senator from the good state of Virginia.
Robert M. Gates, the man slated to fill the "stuff happens" combat boots of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, offered his first cautious pass at the lessons of the Iraq War this week. In a questionnaire he filled out for the Senate Armed Services Committee in preparation for his upcoming confirmation hearings, he responded to a query about what he would have done differently with the following, according to the Associated Press:
"'War planning should be done with the understanding that post-major combat phase of operations can be crucial,' Gates said in a 65-page written response submitted to the committee Tuesday. ‘If confirmed, I intend to improve the department's capabilities in this area…With the advantage of hindsight, I might have done some things differently.'"
With the advantage of "hindsight"… hmmm.
So, let's see if we can get this straight: With hindsight, his lesson would be that, in the next Iraq-style invasion and occupation, we should focus more on that "post-major combat phase"--a nice phrase that resonates with our President's famed "mission accomplished" moment on May 1, 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, when he announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
Of course, by then, a lot of "stuff" had already happened and Baghdad, as well as much of the rest of Iraq had been thoroughly looted. But assumedly the new Secretary of Defense has learned his lesson: More troops for the occupation, more well-trained US MPs for the streets, a few people who actually speak the language of whatever invaded countries we might end up in, and maybe a good strongman in our pocket, not to speak of an undisbanded army of well-trained locals to keep him and us company.
It's so early in the "withdrawal" game and yet Gates' sad answer sums up the sad state of what passes for debate right now in the mainstream, including among the members of James Baker's Iraq Study Group.
Of course, there's only one lesson of the Iraq War to start with, the sort of lesson that parents tell kids every day: Don't do it!
Wouldn't it be nice if we had a Secretary of Defense who, having absorbed the lessons of this war, would begin planning to do no planning for future invasions of Iraq-like countries, not to speak of the post-major combat phases of such invasions. But we might as well wish for the confirmation of Tinkerbell.
It is too bad that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, had decided not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2OO6.
It would have been entertaining to watch this sorry excuse for a senator try and explain a political journey that deadended when the physician-turned-legislator diagnosed brain-damaged Terry Schiavo via videotape -- producing an assessment of her condition that completely contradicted that of doctors who had actually examined her.
The storm that followed his intervention in the Schiavo case represented the only instance in which most Americans actually noticed that Frist was one of the nation's most powerful political leaders.
After a number of earlier missteps, Frist had tended to avoid the limelight because he never did very well when he was in it --as the Schiavo fiasco so potently illustrated -- and because his primary purpose in the Senate, that of enriching his already wealthy family, was not exactly the sort of thing that politicians brag about.
The wealthy doctor ran for the Senate in 1994 with a simple mission: to prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.
For almost a decade, Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- a good hair, good suit, bad politics man of the Senate. Then, former Senate Majority Leader and soon-to-be Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party in 2002. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.
With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.
Things got seriously dicey for Frist only in the presidential election year of 2OO4, when the Bush administration found itself short on defenders. Everyone seemed to be turning state's evidence on the president. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors at the time that the administration committed this country to the course of quagmire.
The administration had few credible spokespeople left. The White House couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.
The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist became, for a brief but not exactly shining moment in the spring of 2OO4, the White House's defender-in-chief.
The majority leader took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."
That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service had been about nothing so much as profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who lacked access to health care. As Mother Jones explained, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."
The Frists fared well during the senator's two terms. An $800-million stake in HCA that his father and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, rose steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."
So Bill Frist certainly knew a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.
Of course, when he attacked Clarke, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit one of the few members of the Bush administration who had tried to take terrorist threats seriously. The problem with Frist's attack was that Clarke had already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."
Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.
It was at that point that Frist began to recognize that he was not exactly ready for the political primetime.
Before the Clarke catastrophe, there had been talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remained firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After Frist's flip out, however, even Republican loyalists started asking whether the senator was good for anything other than taking care of the family's health care investments.
A year later, with his Schiavo diagnosis, whatever credibility his medical degree might have given Frist was gone.
When he decided not to seek reelection in 2OO6, no one was surprised, or particularly upset.
When he decided not to seek the party's presidential nomination in 2OO8, Republicans breathed a sigh of relief.
After 12 years of political malpractice, Dr. Frist is retiring to the obscurity he so richly deserves -- unless, of course, ethics investigators take an interest in how his family's fortunes rose during an otherwise undistinguished Senate tenure.
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com
Now that an estimated 40 million people are living with HIV worldwide, the AIDS epidemic has surpassed even the most dire predictions made by experts when the virus first surfaced 25 years ago.
AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, and the United Nations reports that somebody in the world is newly infected with HIV every 8 seconds. Many other numbers are just as grim as people around the globe mark World AIDS Day.
Since its inception in 1988, World AIDS Day has raised awareness of the realities of the virus, which is spreading widely through sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and East Africa at the same time as new drug cocktails have served to push back the disease in the affluent parts of what we used to call the "First World."
How to help?
*Participate in a World AIDS Day event or action on December 1.
*Help save a child's life in an AIDS-affected community by becoming a HopeChild sponsor through WorldVision. (All it takes is one dollar a day.)
*Build support for the AIDS Cure Act.
*Volunteer with the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), one of the country's most effective grassroots groups working to ensure the development of an effective range of HIV prevention options.
*Download the Free Treatment for All manifesto and add your name to the campaign.
*Echo the Global Access Project's call to urge the US government to lead a global health workforce initiative in AIDS ravaged countries.
Finally, talk to people. Since HIV was first identified a quarter of a century ago, it has been a stigmatized disease, resulting in silence and denial. Talking openly about HIV to your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors is the most powerful way of ending prejudice.
Ranking up there with good cheer and the smell of evergreen, one of the holiday season's many genuine pleasures is the now-annual ritual of watching the far right wax livid on the supposed "War on Christmas."
With all but about 4 percent of Americans celebrating Christmas, and the carols and decorations now ubiquitous even before Thanksgiving, you'd think Yuletide celebrants could rest secure in their comfortably majoritarian status.
But a vocal handful of them just can't, because right-wing cultural politics is all about stoking a perennial victim complex. Thus, Christmas must always be under siege. Take, for instance, the killjoys from the ACLU who enjoy booting the baby Jesus from public parks! The problem the right faces in attacking liberals on this sort of issue, though, is that huge numbers of Americans -- even, and sometimes with particular fervor, people of faith -- do think separation of church and state is a pretty good idea.
So the more promising raw material for the "War on Christmas" lament is stores like Best Buy, Sears and Crate & Barrel (and, until recently, poor old Wal-Mart, which, constantly attacked from both left and right, has caved to the right on this particular issue) which avoid the use of the word "Christmas" in advertisements, or encourage employees to wish customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." From Bill O'Reilly to William Donohue to John Gibson to the American Family Association, the nutters are forcefully mobilized against these outrages.
What I love about the "Merry Christmas" crusade is that it's such a waste of right-wing time and energy. (Not that the left is immune to silly political performance art, of course -- what else is Jesse Jackson's call for a boycott of the "Seinfeld" DVD?)I hope it continues every year, distracting its ringleaders from their more menacing projects. But life in a democracy is about compromise and I'm more than happy to make a deal. If these bozos would agree to stop crusading against gay marriage, reproductive rights, stem cell research and rational sex education and immigration policies, I'd be delighted to hear Best Buy clerks say "Merry Christmas." I'd even say it back.
It's no secret that Mitt Romney's stock is rising inside Republican circles. The former Massachusetts Governor is working overtime to position himself as the authentic conservative alternative to "moderates" John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. While McCain and Giuliani try to court the right of the party, Romney contends he's already there.
Said Romney in June about the Republican electorate: "On the Republican side we'll want someone who can beat her [Hillary Clinton] and someone who has a clear message for the direction of our country, making it absolutely clear that they're a strong Republican that believes in Republican principles."
In other words, not McCain and Giuliani.
After McCain, Romney's done more than any other GOP candidate to build a farm team of intellectual and grassroots talent to advise him.
Yesterday Romney announced the hires of two of President Bush's top economic advisors, Glenn Hubbard and Gregory Mankiw, and a top domestic policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, Cesar Conda.
Earlier in the week he locked up the support in South Carolina of operative Warren Tompkins, described as "the architect behind Bush's hard-hitting campaign in S.C. in 2000," by The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper.
The impending battle between McCain and Romney in South Carolina is already being called "Slugfest 2."
Let the games begin!
Something important in the overall scheme of the American experiment happened this week.
On Monday morning, MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer appeared on cable television screens across the United States and announced: "The news from Iraq is becoming grimmer every day. Over the long holiday weekend bombings killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. And six Sunni men were doused with kerosene and burned alive. Shiite muslims are the majority, but Sunnis like Saddam Hussein ruled that country until the war. Now, the battle between Shiites and Sunnis has created a civil war in Iraq. Beginning this morning, MSNBC will refer to the fighting in Iraq as a civil war -- a phrase the White House continues to resist. But after careful thought, MSNBC and NBC News decided over the weekend, the terminology is appropriate, as armed militarized factions fight for their own political agendas. We'll have a lots more on the situation in Iraq and the decision to use the phrase, civil war."
The statement followed a similar decision by the Los Angeles Times to drop the pretense of referring to the fighting in Iraq as something other than the civil war it has obviously been for some time. Time magazine and other publications have begun to loosen up on the use of the term "civil war," as well.
What is important about this development is that, for the first time since the debate about Iraq began, some--though certainly not all--major media outlets in the United States are making their own judgments based on developments in the Middle East. Up until now, major media has, with few exceptions, failed to embrace that most basic of journalistic responsibilities. Rather, it has served as a stenography service for the Bush-Cheney administration.
The Washington press corps has imbibed the assessments, the claims, the lies of the White House and then regurgitated them as "news." In so doing, they have warped not just the language but the very essence of the national debate. Meaningless phrases such as "stay the course" and "cut and run" have become mainstays of a discussion that has been stage-managed by White House political czar Karl Rove and his acolytes, as opposed to the news editors who are supposed to be calling the shots for broadcast and cable networks and newspapers.
Major media's on-bended-knee approach to the White House has forestalled an honest dialogue about the crisis into which Iraq degenerated after the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country.
By abandoning the role intended by the founders when they enshrined "freedom of the press" protections in the Constitution--that of checking and balancing executive excess, particularly during periods of one-faction or one-party political dominance--major media failed the Republic at precisely the point when its intervention on the side of realism was most needed.
In no measure has this been more the case than in the refusal of most media outlets to acknowledge Iraq's civil war. By following the dictates of the White House and refusing to employ the only honest description for what's happening in Baghdad and other regions of the country, broadcast, cable and print editors made themselves extensions of the Bush White House during the course of two national election cycles and three years of empty congressional debate.
This in-kind contribution to Republican presidential and congressional campaigns was never appreciated by the White House, which has perfected the art of complaining bitterly about even the most tepid deviations from the official script. But the damage was done--not merely to the Democrats and to the discourse but to the Bush himself.
A president needs a skeptical and challenging media to remind him of the realities that ideologically and personally self-serving aides seek to obscure. Read the transcripts of White House conversations involving Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War and it is evident that both men were conscious of critical reporting on their actions and often challenged the sillier spin of their advisors based on information gleaned from print and broadcast news.
For the better part of four years, as he has steered the country deeper into the disaster that is Iraq, Bush--who does not read newspapers but who reportedly catches televised news breaks while watching sports--has been at the mercy of the neoconservative nutjobs and schemers who continue to crowd his inner circle.
Now, if the president happens to tune in NBC or MSNBC, he will be exposed to the fact that he has placed more than 100,000 young Americans in the middle of a bloody civil war that they cannot resolve.
There are no guarantees that Bush will recognize reality and shift course. However, as major media begins to rise from its bended-knee position, and stenography pads are traded for reporters' notebooks, we approach the moment where Congress and the American people can open the honest discussion that should have started years ago. Too many lies have been allowed to go uncontested, too many Americans and Iraqis have died, to suggest that editors and reporters can simply adopt the term "civil war" and then hold their heads high. It will take a lot of realism, a lot of truth telling, to lift the shame that major media brought upon itself in what historians of journalism will see as an era of relinquished responsibility and propagandistic excess. But, for the sake of those still in the line of fire, not to mention the Republic, let us hope that the critical corner has been turned.
John Nichols' new book, The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is out now from The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com
After George Herbert Walker Bush was jeered by an Abu Dhabi crowd for saying that his "son is an honest man," he appeared stunned and surprised. He apparently was unaware that his boy is not exactly the most popular man in the Arab world.
It has become a common journalistic trope to compare favorably George Senior's realism to his son's faith-based approach. This revival of his father's reputation may end up being Junior's only success. But how in touch with reality was Bush 41? When did he ever know the price of milk?
This issue is suddenly relevant, because the political elite have turned to the father, in the form of his former advisors James Baker and Robert Gates, to rescue the country from his son's mess. And so they wait like supplicants for the Iraq Study Group to deliver unto them a roadmap to the final corner in Iraq and a strategy for turning it.
But so far the combined wisdom of these wisemen is that we should talk to Syria and Iran. Remembering how Iran-Contra turned out, why should Democrats rely on the Bush 41 teams' diplomatic skills this time around?
It's the 20th anniversary of the Iran-contra scandal. Two decades ago, the public learned about the bizarre, Byzantine and (arguably) unconstitutional actions of high officials in the post-Watergate years. But many Americans did not absorb the key lesson: the Iran/contra vets were not to be trusted. Consequently, most of those officials went on to prosperous careers, with some even becoming part of the squad that has landed the United States in the current hellish mess in Iraq.
Before tying the then to the now, let's revisit the basic narrative. When Congress, by fair vote, decided in the 1980s that the United States should not assist the contras fighting the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, the Reagan White House concocted several imaginative ways to pull an end-run around democracy. This mainly entailed outsourcing the job to a small band of private sector covert operators and to foreign governments, which were privately requested or pressured by the Reaganites to support the secret contra support operation. The "Iran" side of the scandal came from President Ronald Reagan's covert efforts to sell weapons to Iran to obtain the release of American hostages held by terrorist groups supposedly under the control of Tehran--at a time when the White House was publicly declaring it would not negotiate with terrorists. The two clandestine projects merged when cash generated from the weapons transactions with Iran was diverted to the contra operation.
Conservatives for years--make that decades--have argued there was nothing really criminal about the Iran/contra affair and that it was merely a political dispute between the pro-contras Republicans in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress. Yet at the time the architects of these schemes worried they were breaking laws and placing Reagan in jeopardy of being impeached. Look at how the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit that gathers national security records, summarizes a memo documenting a key White House meeting on the clandestine contras program:
At a pivotal meeting of the highest officials in the Reagan Administration [on June 25, 1984], the President and Vice President [George H.W. Bush] and their top aides discuss how to sustain the Contra war in the face of mounting Congressional opposition. The discussion focuses on asking third countries to fund and maintain the effort, circumventing Congressional power to curtail the CIA's paramilitary operations. In a remarkable passage, Secretary of State George P. Shultz warns the president that White House adviser James Baker has said that "if we go out and try to get money from third countries, it is an impeachable offense." But Vice President George Bush argues the contrary: "How can anyone object to the US encouraging third parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas…? The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange." Later, Bush participated in arranging a quid pro quo deal with Honduras in which the U.S. did provide substantial overt and covert aid to the Honduran military in return for Honduran support of the Contra war effort.
The Iran arms-for-hostage-deal was also illegal--or so Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger thought. At a December 7, 1985 White House meeting, Weinberger argued the Iran missile deal was wrong and criminal, according to his notes of the session. Weinberger pointed out to Reagan that selling missiles to Iran would violate a U.S. embargo on arms sales to Iran and that even the president of the United States could not break this law. Nor, Weinberger added, would it be legal to use Israel as a cutout, as was under consideration. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and White House chief of staff Donald Regan, who were each present, agreed that a secret weapons deal with Iran would be against the law. Reagan, though, insisted on proceeding, noting he could answer a charge of illegality but not the charge that he had "passed up a chance to free hostages." Weinberger then quipped, "Visiting hours are Thursdays"--meaning the deal could land someone in jail. After the meeting, Regan told Weinberger he would try to talk Reagan out of the deal. He failed to do so.
Soon both the clandestine contras program and the secret Iran deal were underway, with the relevant agencies--most notably, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department--providing back-up and National Security Council officers Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter and Oliver North overseeing operations. In supporting the contras project, the CIA worked with individuals it suspected of being involved in drug-dealing, according to a subsequent CIA inspector general's investigation.
The skullduggery began to unravel in the fall of 1986. On October 5, 1986, a C-123 aircraft ferrying supplies to the contras was shot down by the Sandinistas, and an American named Eugene Hasenfus was captured. He told the Nicaraguans that his flight was part of a CIA-approved operation. Days later, Reagan said of the Hasenfus operation, "There was no government connection with that at all." He was not telling the truth. Shortly after that, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified in Congress that the administration had arranged for no foreign donations--"not a dime"--to the contras--even though he had arranged for a $10 million contribution to the rebels from the Sultan of Brunei.
On November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly revealed that the previous May National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had secretly flown to Tehran. McFarlane's covert mission had been part of the arms-for-hostages deal--which now stood exposed. On November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese held a press conference and disclosed that funds from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the contras support program. (I happened to be watching that press conference with Abbie Hoffman, the former Yippie, who exclaimed, "I couldn't make this stuff up.")
A full-scale scandal was born. Investigations were convened. The Reagan presidency was hobbled. But impeachment never became an issue--in part because Democratic congressional investigators removed it from the table at the start of their inquiries. White House partisans threw up a defense of spin and obfuscation that turned the affair into a political muddle. (That is, mission accomplished.) Oliver North became a hero to conservatives. Bush the Elder, who lied about his involvement in Iran/contra (saying he had been "out of the loop," though noting in a private diary that he had been one of the few officials in-the-know), was elected president in 1988.
The investigations continued. Abrams, McFarlane (who botched a suicide attempt), and a CIA officer named Alan Fiers pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. Two other CIA officers--Clair George and Duane Clarridge--were indicted on perjury-related charges. Former General Richard Secord and Albert Hakim, who managed the secret contra supply operation, pleaded guilty to minor charges. North and Poindexter were convicted of various counts, but their convictions were overturned on legal technicalities. Weinberger was indicted for illegally withholding his notes from special counsel Lawrence Walsh.
The affair came to an ignominious finale on Christmas Eve, 1992. George H.W. Bush, who had been defeated by Bill Clinton seven weeks earlier, issued pardons for Weinberger, Abrams, McFarlane, Clarridge, George and Fiers. Only Thomas Cline, a former CIA officer and partner of Secord and Hakim, who was found guilty of tax charges, ended up going to jail due to the Iran/contra scandal.
But history never ends. Twenty years later, Abrams is deputy national security adviser for global democracy in the George W. Bush administration. A fellow who admitted that he had not told Congress the truth and who had abetted a secret war mounted by a rebel force with an atrocious human rights record now is supposed to promote democracy abroad. Other Iran/contra figures are leading players today. Here's a partial list from the National Security Archive:
* Richard Cheney - now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees' Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
* David Addington - now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and by numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power, Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney.
* John Bolton - the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time.
* Robert M. Gates - President Bush's nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987 because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when he was re-nominated in 1991.
* Manuchehr Ghorbanifar - the quintessential middleman, who helped broker the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all sides' goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections.
* Michael Ledeen - a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11, introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring contacts inside Iran.
* Edwin Meese - currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan's controversial attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry by the nation's top law enforcement officer.
* John Negroponte - the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S. military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Negroponte's profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005.
Another Iran/contra veteran has dramatically returned to the scene recently: Daniel Ortega. On November 7, as the Bush White House prepared itself for congressional elections that would be widely seen as a repudiation of its war in Iraq, the morning newspapers carried the news that Ortega, the Sandinista leader whom the Reagan administration had targeted, had won a presidential election in Nicaragua. The old contras backers now running the Bush administration had to watch their old nemesis (not that Ortega was ever much of a threat) regain power, as their hold on power was slipping. The arc of history is indeed long.
As for the current relevance of Iran/contra, one could argue that the affair taught Reaganites and neocons a lesson, the wrong lesson: you can get away with it. Though the operations ended up being exposed and the Iran deal crashed and burned, the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration did create enough pressure on Nicaragua and forced the expulsion of the Sandinista government in a 1990 election. Perhaps more important for this crowd, no one involved in the shady activity was held accountable. Bush the First was elected. Abrams and other scandal vets were rewarded with prominent posts in the next Republican administration--that of Bush the Younger. The Reaganites had lied to Congress and the public about Iran/contra and ultimately escaped retribution.
This sordid episode hardly served as a warning--either for the Iran/contra alumni who would lead the United States into the debacle in Iraq or for voters who would support an administration staffed with people who twenty years earlier had made their bones in a scandal involving war and truth. One can hope, though, that the disingenuous, reality-defying engineers of the current disaster will be too old or too discredited to return to power two decades from now.
DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.