This is supposed to be Mike Huckabee's make-or-break night.
The former Arkansas governor has emerged as the potential "Jimmy Carter" of the 2008 presidential race – a virtual unknown from the south who, with little money and few national endorsements, uses a breakthrough win in the Iowa caucuses to go national. Huckabee is now statistically tied with the GOP frontrunner in Iowa, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
A strong performance in tonight's CNN/YouTube Republican debate could give Huckabee, who must rely on free media to offset Romney's self-financed "money-is-no-object" campaign, the boost he needs to take the lead.
But with competitiveness should come scrutiny. And that is why tonight's debate must address the fundamental – or, perhaps, we should say fundamentalist -- question that has been raised by the rise of Huckabee.
Is the Arkansan's campaign intentionally stoking anti-Mormon bias in order to draw evangelical conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere away from Romney's bandwagon?
No serious observer of what's playing out in Iowa will disagree with the New York Times assessment that: "The religious divide over Mitt Romney's Mormon faith that his supporters had long feared would occur is emerging in Iowa as he is being challenged in state polls by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who has played up his faith in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Huckabee's rise in Iowa -- some recent polls now put him in a dead heat with Mr. Romney, who had led surveys for months -- has been fueled by evangelical Christians, who believe Mormonism runs counter to Christian orthodoxy."
Huckabee backers in Iowa have been quoted as referring to Romney, a member of one of Mormonism's most prominent families, as a politician "who's going to be acting on an anti-Christian faith as the basis of their decision-making." The former Arkansas governor's Iowa campaign co-chair, veteran Republican activist Daniel Carroll, has been quoted as saying that Christians prefer Huckabee over Romney because Huckabee "prays to the God of the Bible.'
Mormon's do pray to the God of the Bible, by they add another book to the Old and New Testaments: The Book of Mormon. Evangelicals reject the Book of Mormon as false prophesy. And they mince few words with regard to Mormons. "Evangelicals who conclude Mormonism a cult do conclude that Mormons' prayers to God do not ‘get through' because they are not actually petitioning the God of the Bible but a deity of a cultic base," writes Maine pastor Joseph Grant Swank Jr., who writes frequently about what evangelicals refer to as "truth-in-conviction" matters.
In a pluralistic society, evangelicals have a right to their views, as do Mormons.
So what is the question for Huckabee? A simple one: Does he, as someone who seeks to be the president of the United States, respect and endorse Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution, which states that: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"?
If Huckabee were to be nominated for the presidency, he would on January 20, 2009, place his hand on a Bible and swear a solemn oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
That oath, necessarily, requires a rejection of precisely the sort of religious test that Huckabee backers are applying to Mitt Romney.
If Huckabee avows that he is indeed committed to the Constitution, and if he declares that he opposes the application of any religious test, then he must face a second question: Will the candidate Mike Huckabee and the Huckabee campaign make it absolutely clear that they want neither the support nor the votes of those who would oppose Mitt Romney's candidacy on the basis of religion?
Acts matter. Here's how Dahr Jamail, a young mountain guide and volunteer rescue ranger in Alaska (who did freelance writing in the "off-season") describes his rash decision, back in 2003, to cover George W. Bush's Iraq War in person: "I decided that the one thing I could do was go to Baghdad to report on the occupation myself. I saved some money, bought a laptop, a camera, and a plane ticket, and, armed with information gleaned via some connections made over the Internet, headed for the Middle East." That was it. The next thing he knew he was driving through the Iraqi desert from Amman, Jordan, toward Baghdad and directly into the unknown. He had few contacts; no media organization to back him; no hotel/office with private guards to return to at night; no embedded place among American forces for protection; not even, on arrival in Baghdad, any place to write for.
Call that a shot in the dark. The result? A singularly remarkable running account of what Iraq actually felt like, of what life for Iraqi civilians actually was like after the shock-and-awe onslaught of March 2003 devolved into the endless occupation/catastrophe we all know so well. Jamail, who has written regularly for Tomdispatch these last years, has now published a book on his time on (and always very close to) the ground in Iraq, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Unnerving as it is to come, once again, upon the real face of the American occupation, largely seen through Iraqi eyes, Jamail's new book is also a gripping adventure to read, the odyssey of a neophyte becoming a journalist under the pressure of events.
In reviewing the book for Mother Jones magazine, Nick Turse recently wrote:
"I suspect Jamail's account will prove an enduring document of what really happened during the chaotic years of occupation, and how it transformed ordinary Iraqis. To paraphrase one of the Vietnam War's finest correspondents, Gloria Emerson, writing about Jonathan Schell's exceptional accounts of that conflict: If, years from now, Americans are willing to read any books about the war, this one should be among them. It tells everything."
You get a sense of Jamail's forceful, reportorial style from a passage in a recent piece of his, "Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians," on how the Pentagon has worked to control the media landscape as well as the Iraqi battlespace:
"Whether it was 'incidents' involving helicopter strikes in which those on the ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video tape (Marine Major General James Mattis: 'How many people go to the middle of the desert.... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive.'), or killings at U.S. checkpoints; or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an 'enemy'; report only 'fighters' being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill."
As the lead editorial in The Nation noted last week, the recent maelstrom surrounding Governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to issue driver licenses to undocumented immigrants revealed the fear-mongering and racism that too often characterizes the so-called "immigration debate." It illustrated once again the desperate need to overcome the demagoguing and engage in an informed conversation – all the more challenging as people feel increasing economic anxiety and dislocation.
That's why a report released today by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) – Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York Economy – is such a critical contribution at this moment. FPI does rigorous analysis to promote public policies that create a strong economy in which prosperity is broadly shared by all New Yorkers. This report reveals that immigrants – making up 21 percent of the state's residents – added $229 billion to the New York State economy in 2006, representing 22.4 percent of the state's Gross Domestic Product.
"These figures should wipe away any impression that immigrants are holding the New York economy back," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow of the Fiscal Policy Institute and principal author of the report. "In fact, immigrants are a central component of New York's economic growth." And Kallick told me, "The debate around immigration has gotten so overheated that it's become difficult to distinguish myth and hyperbole from simple reality…."
According to the report, New York City immigrants make up 37 percent of the population and 46 percent of the labor force. They are more likely than U.S.-born residents to live in families in the middle-income brackets. Immigrants represent 25 percent of CEOs who live in New York City, half of accountants, one-third of office clerks, one-third of receptionists, and one-third of building cleaners. In sector after sector, immigrants are found in the top, middle, and bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
In the downstate suburbs, 18 percent of all residents are foreign-born, with immigrants making up 23 percent of the labor force. More immigrants work as registered nurses than in any other occupation. 41 percent of physicians and surgeons in the downstate suburbs are foreign-born, as are 28 percent of college and university professors, 22 percent of accountants and auditors, and 19 percent of financial managers.
In upstate New York, five percent of the population is foreign-born, but immigrants play a disproportionately important role in some key areas: immigrants make up 20 percent of all professors; 35 percent of physicians and surgeons; 20 percent of computer software engineers and 13 percent of computer scientists and systems analysts. An estimated 80 percent of the seasonal workers who pick the crops are immigrants.
"This report clearly proves that immigrants fuel growth and vitality in every economic sector and every geographic area in New York," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of The New York Immigration Coalition.
"A wave of federal raids, ‘real ID' cards, or English only ordinances may be intended just to affect undocumented immigrants, but the reality is that they tear apart families and communities," Kallick told me. "If we create an anti-immigrant political climate, we run a very real risk of alienating exactly the people who are helping revitalize urban areas and contributing to economic growth…."
The report also finds that immigrants are subject to the same economic forces as everyone else in our increasingly polarized economy. "We can see that low-wage workers – both immigrants and U.S.-born – are not sharing in the economy's growth," said David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of NY. "The right answer is to enforce basic standards that are good for all low-wage workers, not to pit one group of workers against another."
Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute, recently wrote, "The ‘immigration debate' is a misnomer. The debate isn't just about illegal immigrants. It's not even just about immigrants. It's about the future of America and the role of all American workers in that future…. recognizing the economic contributions of immigrants while strengthening their hand in the workplace can define a progressive agenda that will unite both immigrants and native workers."
Yet we see in the presidential campaign that Republicans continue to fight over who will be "toughest on illegals", and most of the Democratic candidates tiptoe around the issues to avoid saying anything that might be used against them by any interest group. Kallick noted, "The two leading candidates in the primaries are from New York. We hope this report will make them aware of what's at stake as they fumble around for a position on immigration…. The right answer on immigration would include not just policies to help immigrants succeed, but also efforts to enforce labor laws and improve standards for all workers…. What we would hope for in a candidate is a leader who could wrench the discussion away from inflammatory talk radio and steer the country toward a sensible set of policies. We haven't seen that from the front-runners yet. But there's still time."
Polling is an integral part of the political landscape. It's also very confusing and many credible studies suggest that polling methods are employed to bring about certain results as much as to accurately gauge public opinion. There's no denying that the practice of polling deserves greater scrutiny. But the problem is the pervasiveness of polling and its evil spawn, push-polling.
It's just a matter of numbers. As Michael Dimock at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press says, "There are a zillion political pollsters out there doing message testing and tracking within their own organizations, and nobody has collected it all in one place. We all have a sense that it's increased over the years, but there's no easy way to prove it. There's also no easy way to know what they're asking and on whose behalf."
That's why HuffPost's OffTheBus has started a national "Polling Project" which The Nation is proud to be co-sponsoring along with a non-partisan group including Pajamas Media, Talking Points Memo, Instapundit, Politico, The Center for Independent Media, Mother Jones, WNYC Radio and Personal Democracy Forum. HuffPost's OffTheBus provides breakthrough, ground-level coverage of campaign '08 by fusing the collaborative power of new media with the highest professional standards of traditional journalism. This new polling study, being run by Amanda Michel and longtime Nation writer Marc Cooper, is the first in a series of OffTheBus's ambitious reporting projects and aims to collect sufficient documentary evidence from a wide swath of America's polling districts to start to understand the impact of polling on American democracy.
The project is asking its readers to share their polling experiences. Exactly how have people been polled? Who called them? At what time? Did they agree to participate in the poll or refuse (one of the least transparent aspects of polling continues to be the refusal of most polling companies to release response rates, which have plummeted in recent years to around 30 percent)? What questions were asked? Did the questions seem fair or loaded? Did the conversation feel driven by age, gender, ethnicity or regional sterotype? Did the pollster seem to be guiding them toward a predetermined answer?
As Huffington says: "Our aim is simple: to get a better understanding of how polling is being used across the country. We want to get to the bottom of how pollsters conduct their surveys, how they gather and build their stats, how they target who they contact, and, ultimately, how they reach their conclusions – conclusions that often fuel the very races they are supposed to be analyzing."
So if you've ever been polled click here to share your experiences and help build a better popular understanding of the political impact of this frequently pernicious practice.
With Russia's parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party expected to win an overwhelmingmajority in the voting, President Vladimir Putin has intensified attackson his opponents--most recently, accusing them of being in the pocketof Western governments. Most of the country's state-run media have fallenin line.
Attacks on opposition forces are not confined to verbaldemonization. On Wednesday, Farid Babayev--the head of the Yabloko partyticket in Dagestan was shot at the entrance of his apartment building.Babayev, a human rights activist and fierce critic of the United Russiaparty and local authorities, died on Saturday. That same day, GarryKasparov, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition Other Russia,was arrested in Moscow and sentenced to five days in jail for leading anunsanctioned street march on Russia's Central Election Commission. (Cityofficials had given the coalition permission to hold a rally but not amarch.)
The Kremlin's tightening grip on the media, especially national andlocal television, and authorities' harassment of opposition parties,led Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to draw a parallel between Putin'sRussia and Soviet Russia. "Russia stands on the threshold of therestoration of Soviet-style single-party rule."
On the eve of elections, there has been an intensification of attacks onwhat remains of Russia's free press. On November 9, Russianauthorities shut down one of the country's few remaining independentnewspapers-- the Samara edition of Novaya Gazeta. The pretext providedby authorities was cynical and hypocritical: in a country which leadswhen it comes to intellectual piracy, the police confiscated the paper'slast remaining computer (the others were seized in a raid last spring)and indicted its editor for allegedly using a counterfeit version ofMicrosoft software.
Last week, Dmitrii Muratov--the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta'snational edition--was in New York to receive the Committee to ProtectJournalist's International Press Freedom Award. I had the honor andpersonal pleasure of presenting CPJ's award to him. My husband StephenCohen and I first met Dmitrii--a tenacious and brave editor--in 1993.He and a few other colleagues had gathered in the basement cafeteria ofMoscow News--then a bold paper of the glasnost era--to plan the launchof Novaya Gazeta. Survival of a different kind was on their minds atthat time; they were beginning the paper with two computers, oneprinter, two rooms and no money for salaries!
An initial boost of financial support came from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev,who contributed part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Award to pay for morecomputers and salaries. By 1996, Novaya's circulation had risen to70,000 from its initial run of 10,000; today it's national circulationis close to 600,000 and 100,000 visit its website every week.
I knew in 1993 that Dmitrii was a bold and creative editor. What Idid not foresee was that he would become one of the last defenders ofpress freedom in Russia. The newspaper, which continues to publishagainst great odds, has paid a heavy price for its crusadinginvestigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations,brutality in Chechnya and abuses of power. Three of its most courageousreporters --Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin and AnnaPolitkovskaya--have been murdered for their unflinching investigations
One by one, newspapers and television networks have yielded toKremlin pressure and surrendered their independence. Nonetheless, asRussia has descended from the media freedoms of Gorbachev's "glasnost"to today's conformity and compliance, Dmitrii Muratov and NovayaGazeta's reporters and editors have continued --despite the financial,political, physical threats and pressures---to remain independent andpublish.
In his remarks at the Committee to Protect Journalist's dinner in NYlast week (the English translation of his speech and a You Tube video of the event are posted below), Muratov spokepowerfully, and personally, of his fight for press freedom--and forjustice on behalf of his slain colleagues.
Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society workto ensure that Novaya Gazeta survive and thrive as an independent,oppositionist force--and that the journalists' killers be brought tojustice.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues:
Igor Domnikov was murdered for investigating corruption. YuriShchekochikhin, my best friend, deputy, and a nationally famousjournalist was murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. Three of themost important people in my life. And it's me who gets to stand here ina tuxedo and receive an award. It's not normal. I feel no joy. I neverwill.
If she were alive, Politkovskaya would have had some of her favorite redwine with me. With Domnikov and Shchekochikhin--I would have had lots ofvodka. And we would've been happy. But now we cannot be. And I won'tever be.
So why do this? Why continue to publish a paper that endangers people'slives?
Because our million readers share the values of democracy. Realdemocracy--not its imitation. This is not fashionable in Russia today.This could damage one's career and reputation. Because today there isonly one official god - the State and its interests. As opposed tosociety and individual rights.
The state, alas, became a corporate business--the business of specialsecurity forces.
And that business--like special security forces--needs silence, notpress freedom.
On November 9, one of our regional editions was shut down - NovayaGazeta in Samara. The pretext: police found unlicensed Microsoftsoftware in its computers during a search.
The paper is no longer. All of its documents and equipment were seizedahead of parliamentary elections, now just two weeks away.
Our paper is denied advertising for political reasons. Americancompanies and institutions are allowed to advertise in other Russianpapers, not us. I call on advertisers to work directly with NovayaGazeta.
Support us and our smart, highly intelligent, thinking readership. Mypaper needs your support.
On the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's death we turned on her cellphone. There were thousands of calls on the phone.The readers appealedto us to continue her work; to not be silent.
We will not be silent.
But we can allow ourselves a moment of silence for our murderedjournalists. I am asking you to honor them right now.
[A moment of silence]
A granddaughter was born to Anna Politkovskaya this year. Her name isAnna Victoria. Life goes on.
Here's the video:
President Bush recently traveled to Australia to thank conservative Prime Minister John Howard for making that country a member of the "coalition of the willing" U.S. allies in the occupation of Iraq.
Bush's trip was supposed to shore Howard up as national elections approached. Instead, the president planted what turned out to be a political kiss of death on his most willing accomplice.
When the votes from Down Under were counted Saturday, it was instantly clear that the vast majority of Australians are no longer willing to participate in the American president's misadventure in the Middle East.
Bush's "Australian poodle" is no longer in charge.
In fact, Howard has been so thoroughly rejected that he's likely to be out of Australian politics altogether.
After a landslide shift to the left by the Australian electorate, Howard -- who was every bit as nasty and gaffe-prone as his pal Dick Cheney -- will be replaced by a left-leaning intellectual who was elected on a platform that promised to withdraw his country's troops from Iraq and to develop a new foreign policy that will be more independent of the United States.
As in Spain, Italy and a number of other former "coalition of the willing" countries, the Australian electorate has effectively voted the troops home. Australia has only about 500 troops in Iraq, but that contingent is one of the larger of the non-U.S. "coalition" forces left in the country.
Australia's abandonment of the Iraq project is not the only change that is coming to the country that had, under Howard's leadership, been the steadiest U.S. ally of the Bush era.
The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will adopt a radically different approach than his predecessor did when it comes to global warming. Where Howard was one of Bush's few allies in international debates about climate change, Rudd promises to sign the Kyoto Protocol and to make Australia a greener and more pleasant land. (He'll be assisted by his Labour Party's pointman on environmental issues: Peter Garrett, the long-time lead singer of the rock band Midnight Oil, a veteran anti-nuclear weapons campaigner who left the stage to become a member of parliament.)
So committed is Rudd to shifting his country's approach to climate change that the new prime minister is expected to lead Australia's delegation to the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Bali.
Rudd is no radical. He's the mildest of socialists in what is today only a mildly socialist Labour Party. But compared with Howard, who followed the Bush line so slavishly, Rudd promises a welcome change of course for a nation that remains a significant player in the politics of the planet.
And Rudd has a mandate. After 11 years out of power, Labour went into Saturday's election with a 16-seat deficit in the parliament. It now has a majority of at least 22 seats over Howard's right-wing Liberal party. Among the many prominent Liberals who appear to be headed for defeat is the prime minister, who acknowledged late Saturday that he is likely to become the first head of government to lose his own seat since 1929.
To understand the scale of the rejection of Howard -- who has for 33 years represented the historically conservative seat for Bennelong in suburban Sydney -- imagine Bush losing in the Houston suburbs. Of course, recent surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Texans disapprove of the American president -- indeed, a July Survey USA poll found that 57 percent of the voters in Bush's home state object to his approach. So, perhaps, the only difference between Australia and America is that there was an election in Australia Saturday. Had there been one in the U.S., it wouldn't just be the poodle who was tossed out -- the master would have gone, too.
The date for the New Hampshire primary has finally been locked in: January 8.
That's five days after the Iowa caucuses.
So, in less than 50 days, the two contests that are most likely to define the 2008 presidential competition will be done.
And no one really knows where we are headed.
The Democratic race in Iowa is essentially a three-way tie, with Illinois Senator Barack Obama, New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards competing within margins of error for the lead.
The Republican race in Iowa is even closer, with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee essentially tied.
In New Hampshire, Clinton and Romney have clearer leads. But Clinton's slipping and Romney is stalled.
In both the first-primary and first-caucus states, former front-runners are falling behind supposed also-rans. Huckabee has moved into the top tier in Iowa, if not yet in New Hampshire. And Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the only serious anti-war contender on the Republican side, is now tied with Arizona Senator John McCain in Iowa. Paul is ahead of Huckabee and the soon-to-be-forgotten Fred Thompson in New Hampshire.
The more dramatic story of a front-runner's slide may actually be on the Democratic side. In Iowa, it appears that Edwards has settled into third place. He still in that margin of error, but on the low end. And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is now in double digits in Iowa, and rising as Edwards falls.
It's even worse for Edwards in New Hampshire. Richardson trails the North Carolinian by just one point in the latest polling, and the trajectory for Edwards is down while the trajectory for Richardson is up.
Just as Huckabee has moved into first-tier competition, at least in Iowa, so Richardson could be moving toward the first tier in New Hampshire. Huckabee's rise has already done damage to the credibility of the McCain and Thompson campaigns, and could yet dent Romney's run.
If Richardson moves ahead of Edwards in New Hampshire, it will be a serious blow to the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president.
Presidential proclamations are of dubious distinction in these days of permanent campaigning by the president and his hyper-politicized staff. What were once the solemn pronouncements of the executive have become little more than super-charged press releases.
George Bush issued more than 100 proclamations in the first ten months of the year, including one honoring National Safe Boating Week and another for Dutch-American Friendship Day. There was one recognizing National Homeownership Month, which conveniently preceded the mortgage crisis that has raised the prospect of as many as two million America families losing their domiciles. There was, as well, a National Consumer Protection Week proclamation, which probably should have outlined steps Americans should take to protect themselves from the dangerous food products and toys that are the byproducts of the administration's exceptionally ambitious trade agenda and exceptionally lax regulatory policies. There was a Constitution Day proclamation, which did not that we know of include a "signing statement" outlining the sections of the document the president would refuse to uphold during the remainder of the year. And perhaps most amusingly coming from the titular leader of an administration that is angling to expand its perpetual "war on terror" to include an imbroglio in Iran was Bush's "Prayer for Peace" proclamation of May 15.
Today, of course, the White House adds to the year's already long list of presidential pronouncements a Thanksgiving proclamation.
Bush has so devalued the official announcements of the White House that it becomes easy to imagine that they were never of consequence.
History reminds, however, that the cure circumstance is, like so much about the Bush presidency, a relatively new and certainly unwelcome variation on the American theme.
In the not-too-distant past, presidential proclamations were rarer and more meaningful statements, prepared by executives who intended them to be read and considered by Americans.
It was not at all uncommon for the nation's greatest leaders to issue only one proclamation annually.
That was the case in 1789, George Washington's first year in the White House, when he circulated only his Thanksgiving proclamation.
Similarly, in the last full year of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt issued just a Thanksgiving proclamation.
Roosevelt used his annual Thanksgiving proclamations as teaching documents. In his last statement to the nation, he encouraged Americans to think in broader terms, to recognize the need to put aside racial and religious prejudices in order to unite the nation in difficult times.
"Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved," wrote Roosevelt in that 1944 proclamation.
A year later, in a proclamation that celebrated the end of the war while mourning the death of Roosevelt, President Harry Truman used the Thanksgiving proclamation of 1945 to declare, "Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world."
This was a radical sentiment at a time when many of the United States remained segregated along the racial lines dictated by the southern segregationists. And it anticipated Truman's embrace of civil rights in the years that followed, an embrace that would extend and expand upon the noblest impulses of the New Deal era.
That was not the only radical message in Truman's proclamation, which spoke as well of a desire to use the United Nations to "make permanent" the peace that had finally arrived and to "cherish freedom above riches."
Nostalgia is a mixed blessing. The past that saw the rise of the civil rights movement also saw the necessity of such a movement. But on this Thanksgiving we can, perhaps, be permitted a measure of nostalgia for the days when presidential proclamations had meaning and when they were issued by executives who had the authority -- and the desire -- to guide the American people toward the better angels of our nature.
While there are extraordinarily important issues to reckon with--endingthis catastrophic war and devising a sane national security policy,providing universal health care, and repairing the gutted socialcompact--fixing our air travel system may be one of the most potentpolitical issues of our time.
An outdated air traffic control system, flight routes from the 1950's,and air traffic controllers retiring more quickly than they can bereplaced while the Bush Administration plays hardball on a new contractand imposes work rules-- these are just some of the issues that have led to the airline "industry post[ing] its worston-time performance since it began collecting comparable statistics in1995."
Roughly 25 percent of domestic flights run late. And now--with 27 million passengers expected to travel over Thanksgivingand the public taking matters into its own hands with the air passenger billof rights movement--President Bush has attempted to "solve" the problem with a little sleight-of-hand and a PR effort.
To much fanfare, Bush has opened up restricted military airspace offof the East Coast to create a "Thanksgiving express lane for congested traffic."
But the Bush Administration fails to mention that opening up militaryairspace is already routine. According to the Washington Post, "Sucharrangements are not new. The FAA coordinates daily with the DefenseDepartment and seeks same-day clearance to use military airspace if, forexample, weather conditions are better in the military's part of thesky."
Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate TravelExecutives, told the New York Times Bush's move is like "putting aBand-Aid on a broken arm." And airline industry forecaster, MichaelBoyd, said, "What's all this rah-rah about the holiday season? What'schanged? We're just going to stagger on the way we've been doing forthe past year, vulnerable to any glitch in the system, vulnerable to anyweather issues."
After the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis I wrote about how our eroding public infrastructure demanded a real public investment agenda (just as I had called for when the levees broke in New Orleans). The antiquated air traffic system is a key partof that agenda. Now the alarms are ringing loudly on that front. Sowhat can be done?
Experts agree that a new satellite-based navigation system is needed to "allow planes to abandon the highway maps and fly freely since a computerized system can check for conflicting flight paths." Accordingto Boyd, airlines are currently limited to using approximately 3 percentof the sky. But that system--called NextGen for Next Generation AirTransportation System--is expected to cost up to $22 billion (less than two months in Iraq and Afghanistan) and won't be ready until 2025. Who's going to pay for it?
What is happening in the air is a microcosm of what's happening on theground with the hedge funders. When it comes to the air traffic control system, private jet owners "incur 16 percent of the costs but pay only 3 percent." And just as hedge funders sent their lobbyists to Congress to defeat the effort for a saner tax system, so too are these tourists in corporate jets fighting to hang on to their unjust privilege of using the skies on the cheap.
But even once the navigation system is built, the runways available forarrivals and departures are still limited, and airlines areover-scheduling. A source in the FAA says that airlines will have toeither cut back the number of flights, use larger airplanes instead ofsmaller commuter flights, or serve more regional airports (whichcustomers are often reluctant to use). Raising landing fees might beone way to move in that direction. According to the New York Times, aBoeing 737 landing in Kennedy pays only about $800--"often far lessthat the price of a single full-fare ticket." (Three-fourths of thechronic delays nationwide are linked to delays at Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy.) As for corporate jets, at most airports they don't pay any landing fee at all, according to the FAA source.
And then there is the labor issue. Recent near midair collisionshave highlighted the staffing shortages and fatigue of our air trafficcontrollers, who have been working without a contract since September2006 under imposed work rules - including lower wages and longer hours -leading many to retire early, and more quickly than they can bereplaced. New hires are therefore often assigned to major metropolitan airports instead of being trained slowly in less trafficked areas. Jeff Richards, president of theNational Air Traffic Controllers Association (NACTA) at the Chicago Center, told the New York Times he has "long been worried about staffing levels and increased workloads." According to Richards, "These minor infractions are really the calling card of a much bigger problem." And Patrick Forrey, president of NACTA told NPR, "We haven't had any major accidents. Well, all the signs are leadingup to the fact that we're going to."
Meanwhile, passengers have grown increasingly frustrated and travelhorror stories are commonplace. Kate Hanni, a California real estate agent who was stranded for eight hours on a runway last December, founded the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights that now has 21,000 members.
Among its proposals are: allowing passengers to get off of the planeafter it has been on the tarmac for longer than three hours; refundtickets at 150 percent for bumped passengers or passengers delayed bycancellations or postponements over 12 hours; provide food, water,sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention during delayslasting longer than three hours. Good legislation is pending in the House and Senate though the Bush Administration has offered no support.
"The Administration has still not commented on the passenger bill ofrights legislation that is currently in Congress...." Hanni recentlysaid.
"This would finally guarantee basic rights to the 27 millionpassengers who are expected to fly in the coming days. Opening uplittle-used military air lanes in the northeast is like adding a lane toan exit ramp on I-95 north of Miami.... The fact is that the airlinesmust be compelled to overhaul their scheduling practices, and providetravelers with basic human necessities...."
This issue is waiting to be seized by a political leader who will linkit to our decaying infrastructure and the desperate need for publicinvestment. Let's hope that we don't wait for the next disaster beforetaking significant steps towards safety and sanity in our skies.
Last month I was privileged to be part of Georgetown University's day-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, his autobiographical-historical-novelistic account of the l967 March on the Pentagon. Mailer was in the hospital and unable to attend as he'd planned -- but it was still a fascinating day. My favorite moment was when the delightful and erudite Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who wrote his thesis on Mailer, explained that in the 1960s and 70s Mailer failed to grasp the reductive nature of television -- he would go on a talk show ,utter a complex thought, and then find that the only part that was quoted was an inflammatory soundbite, like "all women should be kept in cages." Ah, yes, context. I'll bet it made all the difference! My second favorite moment came after my bit on the literary panel,--in which yes, as the only woman I did feel compelled to mention Mailer's rather staggering misogyny-- when various older gentlemen in the audience leapt to their feet to assure me that his violent hostility to women was just a phase . Their wives had met Mailer in the late l970s and found him very nice. My third favorite moment was when, after the showing of Richard Fountain's l971 documentary about mailer -- the product of the very film crew that Mailer reveals, halfway through the book, is following him about as he makes one weird speech after another, sometimes in strange voices-- a Georgetown student told the panel on stage that she and her activist friends always tried to present their political points in a sober, respectful way, and she found the 1960s, and Norman Mailer in particular, entirely bewildering: Was everybody just crazy back then?
It probably astonishes you to hear that I'm not a charter member of the Norman Mailer Society, but I enjoyed Armies of The Night. One of the great things about books, especially when they are of a previous generation, is that you don't have to swallow them whole -- you can take what you want and leave the rest. If you are a writer yourself, you might even see a signpost in what strikes you as mostly a swamp. Take, for example Mailer's third-person depiction of himself as a major jerk ,obnox and social climber-- "the Novelist" worries endlessly about what to wear to the big march , about his literary status and whether Robert Lowell respects him; he pisses on a restroom floor because he's too drunk to find the toilet in the dark, gives an incoherent ranting speech that it turns out nobody could hear, spends a lot of mental energy wondering how to schedule his arrest at the Pentagon so that he can be back in New York in time for a glamorous party, and gets so tied up in egomaniacal knots that when he finally bunks down in jail for the night, in stead of having a historic prison-memoir moment he is unable to address a word to the reputed young genius in the next bed -- Noam Chomsky. It's all pretty funny. But who is telling you this story that reflects so poorly on "the Novelist's" claims to moral seriousness, political commitment, and fitness for the leadership position he longs to hold? Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer the narrator knows perfectly well --at least in Armies of the Night he does -- what an anxious, obsessive, narcissistic, fantastical, insecure, over-the-top, ridiculous person " Norman Mailer" is. The writer sees what the character doesn't see. The expression of that double consciousness is a masterpiece of style. Still, there is that little problem of misogyny. I wish The Nation's considerable coverage of his life had given that more than a passing wave. What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women's liberation, his cult of hatred and domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses,whores, mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), ), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage . I remember him speaking at a PEN meeting in the l990s about the damage women would do to the Democratic Party if they exercised power within it. That made about as much sense as his famous essay in "Advertisements for Myself," (l959) in which, having insulted every famous male writer of his day from Bellow to Baldwin, he wrote . ''I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.''
The obits don't make much of this but it should be said straight out: Mailer did a lot of harm in his life. He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, and it wasn't some larger-than-life zany antic they both had a good laugh over later: he nearly killed her. Psychologically, a recent New York times story suggested, she never recovered. He helped get the writer and murderer Jack Abbott out of prison , and immediately plunged this unbalanced man who had spent over half his life behind bars into the heady world of literary celebrity; within days Abbott had killed a waiter he imagined was dissing him. Several obits have humorously recounted how Mailer assaulted on the street a sailor he thought called his dog gay, but the near murder of Morales, and the actual murder of Richie Adan by Mailer's protege, show that his infatuation with machismo was not just a literary joke, much less endearing protective covering for his inner nice-Brooklyn-boy-who-loved-his-mother.
What can a woman writer take from Mailer? Not much of his content, and certainly not his career advice. But what about style? The boldness, the risk of failure, the willingness to be big and raw and to work the language hard. To let yourself not look good and make readers admire you anyway through sheer virtuosity. Style, I thought after my day with the Mailerites, is everything, content almost nothing. True? I'm not sure, but for Mailer's sake let's hope so.