As the editor of a magazine with one of America's greatest humorists-- Calvin Trillin--I love a good joke. But there's a time and a place for humor. President Bush's joke about the failure to find WMD in Iraq--made at the annual black tie dinner for radio and television correspondents last week--was callous and tasteless. As one Iraq war veteran put it, "war is the single most serious event that a president or government can carry its people into. This cheapens the sacrifice that American soldiers and their families are dealing with every single day." Or as David Corn wrote in his Nation weblog, "Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident."
Matthews: Would you have him [Bush] tell those jokes as he tours the VA hospitals?
Eskew: He tours the hospitals an awful lot. He doesn't need a lesson in compassion toward the American soldiers, Chris.
Matthews: Maybe there's a question here of taste.
Eskew: I think the president has very good taste.
Matthews: You felt the jokes were right?
Eskew: That's self-deprecation, Chris. I think you misinterpret it.
Matthews: So, you think the guys who got hurt and killed in this war thought it was funny? I just don't think it was funny.
But over at that joke of a news operation, Fox "Fair and Balanced" News, Sean Hannity thought it was all a big laugh. When I went on his show last Friday I listened to him huff and he puff as he tried to pin the blame on liberals for not having a sense of humor. (I'd link to it but the show, oddly, doesn't make transcripts available.) Sean--hang it up! What Americans need from this President is truthtelling--not joketelling.
The letter below suggests there are others out there--in this case, a man who served his nation in a previous war--who agree.
March 26, 2004
Dear Ms. vanden Heuvel,
I saw you on Hannity & Colmes this evening. You are absolutely right on. As a Vietnam veteran I thank you for standing up to Sean Hannity (and Alan) regarding George Bush's rather distorted sense of humor regarding his inability to find WMDs in Iraq. May all the souls of those who have died in this insane war rest in peace.
Thank You,Bob Luce
I recently received the letter below. It's so moving, powerful and illustrative of the situation of many young US soliders in Iraq that I thought it was worth sharing. I am grateful to Marianne Brown and Michael Shepard for their kind and thoughtful words. Everyone at The Nation hopes that their son will return safely and quickly.
My stepson, who is in the 428th Military Police reserves, was just sent to Iraq. Needless to say, my husband and I now live daily lives of terror and worry. I want to thank Katrina vanden Heuvel for her persistence in bringing up the fact that 547 (and probably more) of our loved ones have died and thousands more wounded each time she speaks on TV.
She is one of the only people who has the goodness to remember these young people, some of them teenagers, who are being thrown into this bloodbath for who knows how many years. I did everything I could to talk our child out of going. He was a weekend warrior, a kid, a twenty one year old whose lack of worldly expertise and hopes of a grand college education would allow him the option to serve as a police officer someday.
If I hear one more flag draped miscreant sniff and tell me "well he signed up," I may slap them. No, he did not sign up for this bloodbath and occupation. I offered to send him overseas to hide. I offered him a lawyer to get out. I begged him to embrace jail time and a dishonorable discharge. But all to no avail.
How do you tell a twenty one year old what to do? He detests Bush, as do we, but he said, "I can't say anything bad about Bush in front of my unit commander. I'll lose my promotion." He didn't want a dishonorable discharge. The folly of youth. Now he is in Iraq. We don't know where yet. We don't know if we will ever see him again. What we do know is that he just walked into a civil war which, as I speak, is erupting daily into unadulterated hell on earth. We know he may come home in a box, or maimed for life, or psychogically damaged beyond comprehension.
He grew up in a small town and has no clue as to what he will see. When in 2003 my husband and I marched against the war in DC, when in 2001 we marched against the stolen election in DC, we had no idea this would become so personal, that it would hit us in the face and hearts by removing a loved one and put us in the position of being antiwar activists even more radical in our opposition to this occupation.
This hits home like nothing else does, not like losing my job or my elderly mother filing for bankruptcy. We can handle that, we can work that out. This time it's wondering daily, as our kid travels in inadequate Humvees, whether we will ever see him again, or see him again in one piece.
As a sidenote: the military is so desperate for warm bodies, they sent him over with scoliosis of the spine, which they verified he had at Fort Dix with an x-ray exam. I told my stepson to send me his medical records. I wanted a paper trail. The next day they loaded him onto a plane and took him away. The army says now, they lost his x-rays. How convenient for them.
I ask Ms. vanden Heuvel to please continue to speak with her eloquence she shows on TV to the anger many military families feel who watch the laughing, tittering talking heads on corporate TV make jokes all day, run puff pieces as news, and ignore the very real horrors of wondering where a child is in Iraq, will he come home, is he okay, what's it like for him to endure 120 degree heat, is he afraid, will someone be with him if he dies, or is wounded, will someone hold his hand and tell him we love him, is there a way out of this, when will he come home, will we ever see him again?
Thank you for remembering to bring up the children soldiers who have died and continue to be used as cannon fodder for this corporate bloodbath.
Respectfully, Mrs. Marianne Brown and Mr. Michael ShepardParents of Michael Shepard, Jr. (428th MP army reserves)South Haven MI
Is a New York Times columnist--or any columnist--free to make a false assertion and not have to correct it? According to the newly installed public editor of the Times, Daniel Okrent, the answer is yes.
Since the subject at hand is William Safire, a Times columnist who writes on language as well as politics, foreign affairs, and national security, let's start with a definition.
Smoking gun n. Something that serves as indisputable evidence or proof, especially of a crime. So says The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Not much ambiguity there. Sticklers for precise language, keep that in mind.
On February 11, Safire published a column under the headline "Found: A Smoking Gun." It stated that the Kurdish militia in Iraq had "captured a courier carrying a message that demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a 'clear link' between Saddam and Osama bin Laden." This letter appeared to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist connected to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group that had been based in northern Iraq, and it was a request to al Qaeda for assistance in sparking a civil war in Iraq. Though the February 9 New York Times front-page article that first revealed the existence of this letter noted that the message "does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era," Safire pointed to this communication as indisputable evidence there had been an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. He wrote that this letter "is the smoking gun proving" that "a clear link existed" between the Iraqi dictator and al Qaeda.
But Safire was wrong. This postwar request for assistance from Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam was not slam-dunk evidence of a prewar connection, even if it could have been read to suggest there might have been a preexisting relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. And since Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein's regime, the act of linking al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam to Hussein was an iffy, if not disingenuous, exercise. But, more importantly, The New York Times reported on February 20 that, according to "senior American officials," US intelligence "had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq." Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam appeared to be operating separately.
So what happened to Safire's "smoking gun?" Did he issue a correction or inform his readers he had fired prematurely? No. The next time Safire referred to Ansar-al-Islam--in a March 22 column--there was no mention that he had made an erroneous claim on this important matter.
On February 24, I took a whack at Safire for shouting "smoking gun" without proof. And I wrote:
"If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw--or suggest--connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent work--unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors--shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the The New York Times?"
Afterward, Okrent and I exchanged some friendly emails on the topic of columnists and corrections. Then, in a March 28 column, he addressed the questions I had raised (along with those hurled at other Times columnists by other critics). His piece began:
"It sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at the Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow."
Okrent noted that it was hard to devise a "clear, public stated corrections policy" for columnists who are hired to express opinion. After all, Okrent noted, "opinion is inherently unfair." Still, he recognized the need for some sort of corrections policy. And, with the help of Safire, he ended up defending a policy that--whaddayaknow!--protects Safire. Okrent wrote:
"At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record. But if Safire asserts there is a 'smoking gun' linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn's best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren't going to prove it isn't so. 'An opinion may be wrongheaded,' Safire told me by email last week, 'but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.'"
Opinionated pundits, as I noted above, do deserve wide berth, and their claims and statements ought to kick-start rambunctious debate. That's the point. But wordsmith Safire is playing word games, and Okrent is along for the ride. Back to the dictionary:
Opinion n. 1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. "The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion." (Elizabeth Drew).
Is the following statement an opinion? US intelligence found a letter that indisputably proves Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al Qaeda. With his use of the well-defined phrase "smoking gun," that is what Safire had maintained. And he presented his claim as a statement of fact, not merely an opinion. I suppose Safire and Okrent could argue that a "smoking gun" is open to interpretation. But that would be bending its definition to the breaking point. Of course, Safire could have said, This letter seems to be evidence..... Or, My hunch is.... Or, Just wait, you peaceniks, this may well turn out to be.... Or, I really, really, really hope this will be a smoking gun. (And, in doing so, he could have ignored the many pieces of evidence that weakened his case--a columnist's prerogative.) Instead, he engaged in purposeful exaggeration and distorted the available facts. It reminds me of the line Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used when asked in September about his March 30 claim that "we know where [the weapons of mass destruction] are." He replied, "Sometimes I overstate for emphasis."
Okrent did observe that a columnist cannot claim the sun rises in the west and then hide behind the shield of opinion. But under his standard, if a columnist says there is indisputable proof when there is not, that is covered by a columnist's right to hold a wrong opinion. But what does "indisputable" mean? (No more dictionary references from me.) Back in 1974, when the "smoking gun" Watergate tape came out (which, indisputably, caught President Richard Nixon conspiring with aides to block the FBI investigation of the break-in), could a responsible columnist have reported to his or her readers that the substance of this tape indicated Nixon had not plotted to obstruct the inquiry?
In making the case that there is a difference between an opinion and an assertion of fact, I don't want to play semantics. Perhaps Safire, as a columnist, should have the right to exclaim and j'accuse away. Then folks like me can poke at him (though in terms of audience size, it's hardly a fair fight). And maybe Safire, in this instance, merely jumped the gun--for emphasis, as Rumsfeld might say. And maybe this sort of "wrongheaded" error is too tough for editors to evaluate and does not readily lend itself to publishable corrections. ("Editors note: When columnist William Safire noted in a recent column that a letter found in Iraq was the 'smoking gun' that proved al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein, he was misusing the reports of this newspaper and way off-base. Still, please take seriously what he writes today about the United Nations.")
But after the basis for Safire's smoking-gun charge turned out to be all smoke, shouldn't he (if not the newspaper) have had the decency to tell his readers that--whoops--he had misled them, whether it had been unintentional or out of eagerness to have his previous claims about the supposed al Qaeda-Hussein link finally proven right? It may have merely been Safire's "opinion" that a "smoking gun" had been found, but consequent events showed he had peddled an untrue statement to his readers. Many of them may not have read the subsequent Times story that demolished Safire's claim. What does he and the paper of record owe their readers in terms of responsibility and accountability? In this instance, apparently nothing.
It is certainly the Times' privilege to employ a columnist who makes false declarations of fact--which he obviously intends his readers to accept as the truth, not as "illogical" or "crackbrained" beliefs--and who, when challenged on the veracity of his assertions, hides behind the phony cover of it's-just-opinion. But why would it want to?
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
If the Bush administration had gone after Osama bin Laden with anything akin to the energy it is expending to discredit Richard Clarke, the story of America's response to terrorism might have been dramatically different. That, of course, is the point that Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser, makes when he says that Bush and his aides "ignored" the terrorist threats before September 11, 2001, and, even more significantly, when he suggests that the administration diverted attention from the real war on terrorism with an unnecessary war on Iraq.
Those are powerful charges, and Clarke has made them convincingly in his testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, in various media appearances over the past few days, and in his book, Against All Enemies. Predictably, the White House spin machine has been churning out increasingly-visceral attacks on Clarke, a self-described Republican who still praises Bush's father as a masterful leader. Amid the tit-for-tat that has developed, however, Clarke has already prevailed. No matter what the Bush administration throws at the man who served in four White Houses, Clarke has already trumped his attackers.
Clarke did so by opening his testimony before the commission on Wednesday not with a bold pronouncement about the failings of the administration, but with an apology: "I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity that they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurrence. I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11," he began. "To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
In that statement, Clarke proved to be a more masterful political strategist -- and, be clear, a duel between a renegade aide and a president in an election year is about politics -- than White House electoral strategist Karl Rove. Why? Because Clarke recognized the ultimate vulnerability of the Bush administration: An absolute inability on the part of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, above all, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, to admit when they have failed, when they have been proven wrong and when they have been caught in lies.
The administration that began by neglecting George Bush's popular-vote deficit in the 2000 and claiming a mandate for radical change has been consistent in nothing so much as its refusal to accept unpleasant realities. Bush and his aides always refuse to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. As such, they are always pointing fingers of blame at others. September 11? Blame evil or Bill Clinton -- pretty much the same thing in the Bush administration's collective mind. False information about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction program gets into the State of the Union Address? Blame the CIA or someone, anyone, in Europe. Economic downturn? Blame Democrats in Congress for not backing bigger tax cuts for corporations and more-of-the-same trade policies. False figures on the cost of Medicare reform go to Congress? Blame, well, er, gee, gay marriage?
No matter what goes wrong, the ironclad rule of the Bush administration has been to find someone outside the administration -- preferably a Democrat or a foreigner -- to blame. And if there is no way to blame someone else, the policy has been to keep expressing an Orwellian faith in the prospect that the failure will become a success, or that the lie will be made true -- witness Cheney's refusal to back away from his pre-war "they'll greet us with flowers" fantasy about the Iraqi response to a U.S.-led invasion.
Supposedly, this refusal to bend in the face of reality is smart politics. But a constant pattern of avoiding responsibility tends, eventually, to catch up even with the smartest politicians. Richard Nixon never recognized that fact and it destroyed his presidency. Bill Clinton, for all of his failings, did recognize it and, with his televised apology for mishandling of the Monica Lewinsky mess, thwarted Republican attempts to destroy his presidency.
Richard Clarke, who lived inside the belly of the beast that is the Bush administration, recognizes its many vulnerabilities. And, by reminding the American people that apologies are owed for failings before 9/11 and since, he struck Bush and his aides where they are weakest.
Only in Washington.
Last night I was at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner. It's a formal-and-fun affair where thousands of media folks assemble at the Hilton for a fancy dinner and fab pre- and post-parties. I'm not going to denigrate such soirees. I enjoy them. While bookers and producers jiggled and jostled on the dance floor and media and political celebs dissected the news du jour (this time it was Richard Clarke's dramatic appearance before the 9/11 commission), I was able to chat with former weapons hunter David Kay and learn about some troubling developments in the intelligence community (more on that down the road). And there was free sushi.
But an awful you're-all-alone moment came during George W. Bush's comments that followed the sit-down dinner. The current president is often the honored guest at this annual affair, and the audience toasts him in what is supposed to be a sign of communal and nonpartisan spirit. And the tradition is that the president has to be funny; he has to provide us with an amusing speech that pokes fun at himself and his political foes. After all, political journalists love to see politicians engage in self-deprecating humor. Bill Clinton was quite good at these performances. Bush seems to enjoy them less. Rather than do straight standup, he sometimes relies on a humorous slide show, and that was how he chose to entertain the media throng this time.
It's standard fare humor. Bush says he is preparing for a tough election fight; then on the large video screens a picture flashes showing him wearing a boxing robe while sitting at his desk. Bush notes he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. There were funny bits about Skull and Bones, his mother, and Dick Cheney. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn't the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.
Disapproval must have registered upon my face, for one of my tablemates said, "Come on, David, this is funny." I wanted to reply, Over 500 Americans and literally countless Iraqis are dead because of a war that was supposedly fought to find weapons of mass destruction, and Bush is joking about it. Instead, I took a long drink of the lovely white wine that had come with our dinner. It's not as if I was in the middle of a talk-show debate and had to respond. This was certainly one of those occasions in which you either get it or don't. And I wasn't getting it. Or maybe my neighbor wasn't.
At the end of the slide show, Bush displayed two pictures of himself with troops and noted these were his favorites. The final photograph was a shot of special forces soldiers--with their faces blurred to protect their identities--who were posing in Afghanistan where they had buried a piece of 9/11 debris in a spot that had once been an al Qaeda camp. Bush spoke about the prayer the commander had said during the burial ceremony and noted he had this photograph hanging in his private study.
So what's wrong with this picture? Bush was somber about the sacrifice being made by U.S. troops overseas. But he obviously considered it fine to make fun of the reason he cited for sending Americans to war and to death. What an act of audacious spin. One poll recently showed that most Americans believe he either lied about Iraq's WMDs or deliberately exaggerated the case to justify the war. And it is undeniable that in seeking public support for the war he made many false assertions that went beyond quoting intelligence that turned out to be wrong. (I've written about this in many other places. If you still don't believe Bush mugged the truth, check out this short guide.) As the crowd was digesting the delicious surf-and-turf meal, Bush was transforming serious scandal into rim-shot comedy.
Few seemed to mind. His WMD gags did not prompt a how-can-you silence from the gathering. At the after-parties, I heard no complaints. Was I being too sensitive? I wondered what the spouse, child or parent of a soldier killed in Iraq would have felt if they had been watching C-SPAN and saw the commander-in-chief mocking the supposed justification for the war that claimed their loved ones. Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true. (And as Kay pointed out, the evidence so far shows these weapons were not there in the first place, not that they were hidden, destroyed or spirited away.) But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons.
Even if Bush does not believe he lied to or misled the public, how can he make fun of the rationale for a war that has killed and maimed thousands? Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident that he deceitfully used as a rationale for U.S. military action in Vietnam: "Who knew that fish had torpedoes?" Or if Ronald Reagan appeared at a correspondents event following the truck-bombing at the Marines barracks in Beirut--which killed over 200 American servicemen--and said, "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light." Or if Clinton had come out after the bombing of Serbia--during which U.S. bombs errantly destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed several people there--and said, "The problem is, those embassies--they all look alike."
Yet there was Bush--apparently having a laugh at his own expense, but actually doing so on the graves of thousands. This was a callous and arrogant display. For Bush, the misinformation--or disinformation--he peddled before the war was no more than material for yucks. As the audience laughed along, he smiled. The false statements (or lies) that had launched a war had become merely another punchline in the nation's capital.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Conservatives used to have all the fun. Many years ago, right-wingers managed to use one-liners and political spoofs to skewer liberals as out of touch with mainstream American values. A good example was Ronald Reagan, who once defined a hippy as "a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, actually interviewed himself at the National Press Club about why he was running for Mayor of New York. ("To breed a little fear in the political nabobs who believe they can fool all the people all the time," Buckley said.)
Those days, thank God, are finally dead. Currently, progressives are busily bridging the humor-and satire-gaps that once separated liberals from Rush Limbaugh and his countless imitators. Comedy, one of the biggest weapons in the progressive arsenal, is once again (remember Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Second City) being used to effectively get the liberal message out in fresh, irreverent ways.
According to a January Pew Research Center survey, 20 percent of those under 30 receive their political news from places like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Since late-night comedy, more often than not, skewers the right, the young are hearing a brief against President George W. Bush, and watching these shows not-too-subtly support causes like gay rights, reproductive freedom, alternative energy sources and Internet privacy. Bill Maher, star of HBO's Real Time, for example, lambasts Bush for refusing to send troops to Haiti "unless they start doing something there that is really dangerous, like letting gays marry."
Most promising is that Maher, Al Franken and others like Michael Moore and the Texas populist Jim Hightower are using humor to expose conservatives for what they truly are--mean-spirited, hyperbolic, and hypocritical. (Remember how in Bowling for Columbine, Moore lampooned NRA gun nuts at a pro-gun speech by Charlton Heston in Denver, the NRA's president, just 10 days after the Columbine shootings.)
And the level of liberal comedy activity is rising quickly. On March 31, Air America, a progressive radio network, will launch a new 24-hour radio program in three cities, including New York, with hosts ranging from comedian Al Franken ("The O'Franken Factor") and Janeane Garafola to rap artist Chuck D., Nation author Laura Flandersand former Daily Show writer and co-creator Lizz Winstead.
Will Air America have the appeal to go toe-to-toe in the ratings war with the right's radio heavyweights? The moment seems right, what with an election that has galvanized progressives in ways not seen for decades and with an audience that is terribly under-served.
Meanwhile, the Daily Show's Stewart consistently skewers President Bush for misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the 2000 election debacle--"Indecision 2000." Columnist Molly Ivins --Texas's La Pasionaria of intellect and humor--describes Bush as a "shrub" and "another li'l upper-class white boy out trying to prove he's tough." Franken, in his brilliant anti-conservative primer Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, exposes Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter as bullies and frauds.
And, on the grassroots front, a slew of activist groups--two good examples are the Radical Cheerleaders and Billionaires for Bush--are using humor and savvy political messages to bring progressive values to the media's attention. Finally, on the off-Broadway stage at New York's Public Theater, an antiwar satire, written and directed by Academy-award winning actor Tim Robbins, is drawing big crowds nightly for its skewering of White House war planners.
The beauty of all this liberal satire is that progressives, armed with a new bully pulpit, make conservatives seem musty, mean and out of touch. Meantime, Franken & Co. are flat-out funny, deftly promoting progressive values in populist language that seems targeted to win hearts and minds. Let the Franken reign begin!
Last Friday, the Bush Administration was busy pumping up hopes that the war on terrorism was about to yield a victory: the capture along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan of the reputed No. 2 man in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. As it turned out, Dr Ayman Al-Zawahri was probably not among the militants holed up in the heavily fortified compounds that were assaulted by Pakistani troops and their US advisors.
But, by most measures, the prospective capture of what Administration aides described as "a high-value target" was treated as a very big deal by the Bush White House. At the same time, Administration aides were busy trying to hold together the coalition of the sort-of willing that was cobbled together to support the invasion of Iraq. With Spain's new prime minister declaring the occupation "a disaster" and threatening to withdraw that country's troops from Iraq, and with Poland's president telling European reporters that his country was "misled" about the nature of the threat posed by Iraq, the Administration has its hands full. And, of course, top administration aides were already scrambling to counter charges by Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism aide, whose new book reveals that prior to 9/11 the Bush team ignored "repeated warnings" about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
Surely, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a key player on all the fronts that were in play, had a very long list of responsibilities. No time for diversions on Friday, right? Wrong.
Rice took time out of the middle of the day to address a secretive gathering that included global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and top executives from television networks, newspapers and other media properties owned by Murdoch's News Corp. conglomerate. Rice spoke at some length via satellite to Murdoch and his cronies, who had gathered at the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel in Cancun Mexico, according to reports published in the British press.
The Guardian newspaper, which sent a reporter to Cancun, revealed that Rice was asked to address the group by executives of the Murdoch-controlled Fox broadcast and cable networks in the US. The Fox "family" includes, of course, the Fox News cable channel, which the Guardian correctly describes as "hugely supportive of President George Bush."
"Although she is not there in person, the presence of Ms. Rice underlines the importance of Rupert Murdoch's news operations to the Bush administration, which may face growing criticism that it led the country into war on false pretences ahead of November's presidential election," the Guardian account of the Cancun gathering explained.
In addition to Fox, Murdoch controls the Bush-friendly Weekly Standard magazine and New York Post newspaper, as well as 35 local television stations and the 20th Century Fox movie studio. Thanks to Bush Administration appointees to the Federal Communications Commission, Murdoch's reach is rapidly expanding in the US. In December, the FCC approved News Corp.'s $6.6-billion takeover of DirecTV, the country's leading satellite television firm.
That decision made Murdoch the only media executive with satellite, cable and broadcast assets in the US.
In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a very powerful player in the media – and, because of his willingness to turn his properties into mouthpieces for the administration, in the politics of the United States. So it should probably not come as any surprise that, like the politicians in any number of countries where Murdoch has come to dominate the discourse, Bush Administration officials answer Rupert's call – even when they are supposedly preoccupied with national security concerns.
Rice's willingness to brief Fox executives is especially intriguing in light of the fact that she continues to refuse to brief the bipartisan panel that is investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is expected to hear this week from Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William Cohen; and President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger. But Rice has rejected invitations to testify in public.
So it seems that, when the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States calls, the Bush Administration's national security is not available. But when Rupert Murdoch calls, well, how could Condoleezza Rice refuse?
Local media is reporting that hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters poured into streets around the globe on Saturday's one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq to demand the withdrawal of US-led troops.
From Sydney to Tokyo, Madrid, London, New York and San Francisco, protesters condemned US Iraqi policy and the Bush Administration's doctrine of pre-emption. Journalists estimated that at least a million people streamed through Rome, in the biggest single protest. In London, two activists evaded security to climb the historic Big Ben clock tower at the Houses of Parliament, unfurling a banner reading "Time for Truth," as approximately 25,000 demonstrators streamed through central London, many carrying "Wanted" posters bearing the faces of Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his main war ally. In Germany, several thousand people took part in demonstrations in about 70 cities and towns across the country. Some 3,000 people turned out in Sydney, chanting "end the occupation, troops out" and carrying an effigy of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch war supporter. About 10,000 protesters marched in Athens, Greece, and an estimated 120,000 took part in peace protests across Japan.
Read Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel's report from Moscow's antiwar march; Samuel Lowenberg's dispatch from Madrid's rally and Maria Margaronis's Letter from London.You can also check the United for Peace website for updates on continuing antiwar activism in the US, including this Wednesday's "National Iraq Call-in Day."
Uncle Sam hovered over the small crowd of 200 protesters gathered in Moscow today to mark the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. The papier mache puppet--with dollar signs for eyes, a red white and blue top hat and cigar stuffed in his mouth--was held tightly by two young women wearing bandanas and Che buttons as a gaggle of photographers snapped away.
The demo--organized by an eclectic alliance of groups, including the Russian Communist Party youth offshoot, the Radical Socialist Party, Trotskyists, anarchists, Punk Rockers Against Putin, and the Globalization Institute--was one of many taking place across Russia. The marchers--most in their early twenties--were there to protest all forms of occupation and several of the speakers roused the crowd, despite a primitive sound system, by drawing a link between the US occupation of Iraq, Russia's occupation of Chechnya and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For many of these groups, the war in Chechnya is a cancer on their country's soul and without ending that war, they do not believe democracy in Russia is possible.
There were even chants of "Intifada, Intifada." Many called for "Vova"--as Vladimir Putin is nicknamed--to step down. "Down with this War President," the crowd chanted. Many spoke hopefully of the Socialist party's victory in Spain. "Let us take an example from the Spanish people and oust this war government." "Che unites, Putin divides," one protester said. Other placards at the demo said: "No war for Oil!" and "Capitalism Kills, Death to Capitalism!" The only English language sign read simply: "No War!"
Most of the kids out protesting were born during the perestroika years and have come to their leftism out of choice not necessity. ("We know our Marx far better than the older generation, which was forced to read him in school," one young woman told me.) When it came to style, the crowd looked like it would have at home at any protest march in the West: bandanas covered mouths, black ski masks were in vogue (as much to protect against Moscow's subzero temperatures as a political statement), Eminem t-shirts and Che buttons were worn and protest flags were flown. The few babushkas present--elderly Russian women who told me they hadn't received their pensions for months--were handing out Communist party pamphlets.
As the rally wound down, there was a roar from the last speaker--"Let us stomp out imperialist aggression!" Several protesters then gathered around Uncle Sam and began to tear apart the papier mache puppet. A young guy wearing an Arnold Schwarznegger/Terminator shirt began to stomp on Uncle Sam's top hat. "Let us march to the US Embassy," someone shouted through the megaphone. "Yankee, Go Home," chanted a half dozen people. The last speaker then thanked the militia for their help in ensuring that the rally proceeded in an orderly way.
Correction:Thanks to Dr. Ross Worthington, who alerted me to a mistake in my recent weblog looking at how the idea of single-payer healthcare was catching on among businessmen and members of the medical profession. I should have wrote that "sixty-four percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system," rather than sixty-four percent of doctors nationally. Click here to read the full article.
Barack Obama's victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator "the man to watch in Illinois" and "the country's hottest Senate candidate." The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.
For backers of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to "act like a Democrat" if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.
So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn't:
1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, "I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race." Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. "It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention," explained Axelrod. "One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources." Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the "air wars" at the close of the campaign."
2.) When the competition intensified, Obama kept his cool. Like U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who won a 1992 Democratic primary after two better-known and better-financed opponents went wildly negative on one another, Obama presented himself as a calm, attractive alternative to foes whose flaws became increasingly evident at the frenzied finish of the campaign. Even as polls began to identify him as the frontrunner in late February, he campaigned as the nice-guy underdog and he kept on message. Unlike Dean, Obama gave the media few if any gaffes to highlight. In this sense, he was more like another of this year's Democratic presidential contenders, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. That's no coincidence. Obama's chief strategist, Axelrod, played a similar role with the Edwards campaign.
3.) To the very end, Obama focused on his base in Chicago's vote-rich African-American neighborhoods. Obama represents a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population in the state Senate, and he ran an unsuccessful but high-profile Democratic primary for a congressional seat in 2000. And he earned the active support of key political players in the African-American community, such as Jackson and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. Obama's other appeal was to white liberals, a point emphasized by commercials that featured testimonials from Schakowsky and the daughter of former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Where the Dean campaign stretched itself thin trying to secure a big win early on, Obama's campaign remained focused on African-American and liberal wards where he could maximize his vote. He ended up winning as much as 90 percent of the vote in some Chicago precincts. Obama won close to 500,000 votes in Chicago's Cook County, beating his closest competitor by an almost 4-1 margin. Comparisons were made between Obama's strategy and that of the late Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 at the head of a rainbow coalition of African-American and white liberal voters. While Danny Davis, a close ally of Washington, was cautious about the precise comparison, he did say that Obama "reenergized the base" and created "more energy than I've seen since Harold Washington."
Two other notes are worth making in aftermath of the Illinois voting:
* For Democrats, who are becoming cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the fight for control of the Senate, the Obama win is very good news. That's because he came through the primary reasonably unscathed, and because the excitement about his candidacy will make fund-raising easier in a tight year. Obama will face a tough race against millionaire Republican Jack Ryan, who will campaign as a "compassionate conservative." But if Obama continues to run smart, he's got a good chance of picking up a currently Republican Senate seat in a state that is likely to trend Democratic this fall. If Democrats gain the Illinois seat and the Colorado seat that Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is vacating, they will at least be in the fight, although they are still up against the difficult reality that five southern seats currently held by Democrats are open. The interesting new development is that polls in Pennsylvania show Republican Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from conservative U.S. Representative Pat Toomey in that state's April 27 Republican primary. If Specter loses in April, the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel, could well win in November.
* No one paid much attention to the Illinois presidential primary, which John Kerry won with more than 72 percent of the vote and 141 delegates -- giving him more than enough delegate support to attain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. The only candidate who came close to competing with Kerry in Illinois was a candidate who had withdrawn from the race: John Edwards, who took just under 11 percent of the vote and appears to have secured two delegates. Even with a maximized African-American turnout, Al Sharpton ran miserably. In the first Democratic presidential primary after Sharpton endorsed John Kerry but said he would continue his campaign in order to help shape the direction of the party, the New Yorker ran behind Kerry, Edwards and two other contenders who have folded their campaigns: former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the race two months ago, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who withdrew last month. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who says he is still in the running, finished even further behind.
History provides plenty of examples of Democratic challengers who have remained in the running for the party's presidential nomination even after it is beyond their grasp. They have done so to raise issues, to influence the direction of the party and to position themselves for future political endeavors. In some cases -- Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992 -- the challengers have won primaries, secured delegates and achieved what, at the least, could be described as moral victories. Sharpton and Kucinich are falling far short of the mark set by those previous contenders. When a challenger who is actually campaigning runs behind candidates who have left the race, it is hard to argue that he is having any influence on the frontrunner -- let alone on the direction of the party.