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The Nation

Taking it to Crossfire

Nation readers don't need to be told that what passes for TV punditry is far more degrading than uplifting for the national conversation.

With talking heads ranting at each other in soundbite form, it's difficult for even the most dignified, articulate analyst to avoid being caught up in the calculated theater of debate shows like MSNBC's Hardball, CNN's Crossfire and Fox News' Hannity & Colmes. To steal a good line from the man I'm about to praise, TV debate shows are as much about real debate as the World Wrestling Federation is about real athletic competition.

Jon Stewart dropped that line, among many other spot-on remarks, in an amazing confrontation with Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala this past Friday on the CNN program. Invited on to plug his (hilarious) new book, Stewart instead took the opportunity to publicly confront his hosts about why he thinks Crossfire's programming and the mainstream media in general are "hurting America." (He also told Carlson and Begala: "You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.")

The result: perhaps the most direct, frank and truthful comments on the real role the media plays in shaping debate ever uttered on a major television news program. And, thanks to the internet, this remarkable moment in live TV, which clearly thrilled the in-studio audience, can live on well beyond the hundreds of thousands of people who saw it air last Friday.

Click here to watch the interview, click here to read the full transcript, and check out Stewart's comedic interpretation of the news every Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central.

Scowcroft Blasts W.

Remember how Bush One's National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft used a Wall Street Journal op-ed in the run-up to the Iraq war to warn Bush Two about the perils of an invasion? At the time, many believed Scowcroft, a close collaborator of the 41st President, was acting as a proxy for his former boss.

More recently, in the first presidential debate, Scowcroft's words were thrown back at Dubya when John Kerry invoked Bush One's prescient warning (from A World Transformed, the 1998 book he wrote with Scowcroft) that "had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."

Now, Scowcroft is back--a little more than two weeks before a highly contested election--with more tough criticism of the Bush Administration. In an interview in the October 14 Financial Times, Scowcroft bluntly criticized the President's handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger," Scowcroft told the Financial Times. "I think the president is mesmerized." He added: "When there is a suicide attack [followed by a reprisal] Sharon calls the president and says, 'I'm on the front line of terrorism,' and the president says, 'Yes, you are...' He [Sharon] has been nothing but trouble."

Scowcroft also denounced Iraq as a "failing venture," and lambasted the "extremes of the neocons" for their unilateralist approach which has harmed relations between Europe and the US.

If you need any more evidence that George W. and his neoconners are reckless extremists who need to be booted from office on November 2, check out Scowcroft's remarks.

Orwellian Twist on the Campaign

"Political language...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind." -- George Orwell

George Orwell shaped our imagination of a future in which a propagandistic media produced a steady stream of up-is-down, right-is-wrong, war-is-peace lies in order to impose the will of a governing elite upon the subject citizenry.

Orwell reckoned this ultimate diminution of democracy would come in the year 1984. Imperfect genius that he was, the author missed the mark by twenty years. But, after watching the controversy regarding the Sinclair Broadcast Group's scheme to air the truth-impaired mockumentary Stolen Honor in an attempt to stall the momentum John Kerry's campaign gained from the presidential debates, it becomes evident that the future Orwell imagined is unfolding.

Forget about the anti-Kerry fantasy film Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. That comic attempt at a documentary is nothing more than a 42-minute "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"-style television commercial produced by a former longtime employee of Tom Ridge, the secretary of George W. Bush's Department of Homeland Security--an agency that pays daily homage to Orwell with everything from its name to those color-coded terrorism warnings.

But don't forget about the Sinclair Broadcast Group. If you want to see the Orwellian media future that the Bush administration envisions, pay close attention to Sinclair. This cobbled-together collection of television "properties" is not a network but a media holding company that owns 62 of the most miserable excuses for broadcast outlets in the country. "Quality" has never been a watchword for Sinclair, a firm that pioneered the one-size-fits-all approach to mass media. When Sinclair buys a station in some long-suffering community, it fires the local staffers and begins feeding the locals a steady diet of disembodied and disengaged "content" spewed out of the company's media mill near Baltimore.

Sinclair has even experimented with the so-called "distance-casting" of weather reports. Sinclair's stormbots read local forecasts for communities around the country while standing in front of ever-changing weather maps at the firm's suburban Baltimore bunker.

But the main product of Sinclair's media mill is the slurry of right-wing dogma drooled from the lips of corporate vice president for corporate relations Mark Hyman. Ideologically in-synch with the bosses at Sinclair--who have given over $170,000 to Republican causes over the past decade, including $59,000 so far in this year's campaign--Hyman force-feeds editorials to all 62 company-owned stations in order to shore up the conservative cause to the 25 percent of all American households reached by Sinclair outlets.

Hyman makes Sean Hannity sound like a sensible moderate. The Sinclair mouthpiece specializes in scorched-earth attacks on anyone who sees through the distortions of the Bush administration. He refers to members of Congress who criticize the war in Iraq as "unpatriotic politicians who hate our military." Whenever mainstream media outlets practice anything akin to journalism, Hyman condemns the offending outlets as the "hate America crowd."

During the current campaign, Hyman has been a one-man propaganda machine, spinning out anti-Kerry commentaries and repeating even the most discredited lies about Kerry's Vietnam record on stations that broadcast in at least eleven of this year's seventeen battleground states.

Over the past month, Hyman has produced eleven broadcast editorials that explicitly attack Kerry, one that explicitly attacked Teresa Heinz Kerry, two that explicitly attacked Democratic candidates for Congress and two that generically attacked Democratic candidates for Congress. If Hyman's goal is to make Fox look "fair and balanced" by comparison with Sinclair, he's succeeding. And, in recent days, he has spun into overdrive.

When the controversy about Sinclair's decision to scrap regular programming in order to air Stolen Honor heated up, Hyman went into Orwellian overdrive. He accused the nation's broadcast and cable networks-- -including, presumably, Rupert Murdoch's Republicans Uber Alles Fox network--of collaborating to "suppress" anti-Kerry news. Because they have not aired Stolen Honor or given time to the embittered Kerry critics featured in the production, Hyman says: "They are acting like Holocaust deniers." When Democrats suggested that Sinclair's decision to air the anti-Kerry documentary so close to the election should be seen as an in-kind contribution to Bush, Hyman replied. "if you use that logic and reasoning, that means every car bomb in Iraq would be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry."

Orwell would have had to stretch even his creative powers to come up with a propagandist who compares the decisions of news departments not to cover discredited claims with the denial of Nazi genocide.

Hyman is, of course, wrong. And, despite the delusional content of his statements, it is difficult to imagine that Hyman does not know he is wrong. But, of course, the Orwellian propagandist does not blink in the face of reality. He just lies louder.

To quote Orwell, "This kind of thing is not a good symptom."

Hyman's willingness to ramp up the distortions is a deliberate tactic. He seeks to confuse the issue by suggesting that fantastical claims about decades-old events are somehow more newsworthy than the developments of the day.

Make no mistake: Airing a "documentary" produced by campaigners who seek to defeat a candidate is fundamentally different from reporting the news out of Iraq. But issues of truth and falsehood have never been a significant concern for the "Dear Mr. Fantasy" of the right. Hyman does not bother to abide even by the exceptionally low standards of accuracy that prevail among conservative commentators. Rather, he peddles partisan talking points that are written with an eye toward aiding Republicans and afflicting Democrats--and he guides a network that does the same, by refusing to air even non-controversial Democratic National Committee commercials, and be censoring an ABC-TV Nightline broadcast that named Americans killed in Iraq.

Not that long ago, Hyman in particular and Sinclair in general would have been fairly harmless. Corporations were only allowed to own only a handful television stations nationally. But rule changes pushed through by the Federal Communications Commission and the Congress--in the form of the Telecommunications Act of 1996--have eased the limitations dramatically.

Thus, we have one-size-fits-all companies such as Sinclair, which do the bidding of the Washington elites in order to assure that they will continue to benefit from rule changes that favor consolidation of media ownership and homogenization of television content.

That combination is where the Orwell equation is unlocked.

No, Sinclair does not dominate all US airwaves. But its model could well come to be dominant. Sinclair has been in the forefront of remaking television in an era of loosened ownership restrictions and slackening standards.

Without serious reforms--which would restore limits on the number of stations any one company can own could own, set standards for local content and, perhaps, even restore the Fairness Doctrine--the Sinclair model could well become the norm. No firm has lobbied harder than Sinclair for the further loosening of media ownership rules and regulations. Given a second term, Bush and his aides would undoubtedly be even more supportive of Sinclair's lobbying agenda and of the big media's campaign to reshape the communications landscape. Indeed, Bush's reelection would do much to assure that Orwell's worst fears of the 20th century will become the reality of the 21st.

"If Sinclair is allowed to go forward, it will set a precedent that endangers our very democracy," says US Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, one of the leading congressional advocates for media reform. "There can be little doubt that other broadcasters will follow suit and American television could become little more than the political mouthpiece for its corporate owners. If that happens, the sad truth is that American television could end up looking more like that of authoritarian countries like the former Soviet Union and China, which are widely despised for broadcasting the 'party line,' rather than (serving as) a forum for the free exchange of diverse political views that is so necessary to a vibrant democratic society."

There is an alternative to this dark scenario. Sinclair can and should be challenged--economically and politically. Various groups are organizing on both fronts. At the Stop Sinclair website, there are online petitions and details about how to contact Sinclair's local stations, advertisers and shareholders. David Brock's Media Matters has great background on the political agenda of the makers of Stolen Honor and Sinclair. And at SinclairWatch, there are details about when the licenses of Sinclair stations around the country are up for renewal and information on how to file complaints that can form the basis for challenges to those renewals.

Ultimately, however, the protests, boycotts and challenges to Sinclair's licenses are necessary steps in the short term. But the only way to insure against an Orwellian future is to assure that, if Bush is defeated, one of the first priorities of a Kerry administration is the restoration of the rules and regulations that limit the growth of media monopolies.

Step one is to change the make-up of the Federal Communications Commission that has not merely allowed but encouraged those abuses. Kerry could start by replacing FCC chair Michael Powell, the best friend big media has ever had in so critical a regulatory role, with Michael Coppss, the commissioner who -- along with his fellow Democrat, Jonathan Adelstein -- has consistently defended the public interest.

Copps understands the crisis. Referring to the Orwellian twist Sinclair is attempting to put on the 2004 presidential election, Copps said, "This is an abuse of the public trust. And it is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology--whether liberal or conservative. Some will undoubtedly question if this is appropriate stewardship of the public airwaves. This is the same corporation that refused to air Nightline's reading of our war dead in Iraq. It is the same corporation that short-shrifts local communities and local jobs by distance-casting news and weather from hundreds of miles away. It is a sad fact that the explicit public interest protections we once had to ensure balance continue to be weakened by the Federal Communications Commission while it allows media conglomerates to get even bigger. Sinclair, and the FCC, are taking us down a dangerous road."

If George Orwell were around, he would tell us that it is the road to 1984. "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world," he would warn, adding that, if we do not act, "Lies will pass into history."

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.

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Faux-Outrage

Have you noticed that when Lynne Cheney thunders about being an "indignant mother" she can't repress a smile? And when husband Dick says he's an "angry father," he's smirking?

That's because they're actually far more pleased than outraged by John Kerry's mention of their daughter's sexual orientation in the last debate. Now they have an issue to distract the country from George Bush's awful debate performances. And the media, which drank deeply from Cheney's WMD concoction, has once again swallowed his deceptions--hook, line, and sinker.

It was Dick Cheney himself, who first brought up his daughter's lesbianism in the 2000 Vice-Presidential debate when he wanted to burnish his compassionate side, a quality never noticed much before and completely absent since. When John Edwards mentioned Cheney's daughter in this year's VP debate, Cheney thanked him for his "kind words."

But within moments after the third debate between Bush and Kerry, Lynne Cheney was ready with a canned line of faux-indignation to feed the post-debate news shows. It's now morphed into an applause line in both mom and pop's campaign speeches. This isn't parental outrage; it is political theater from two of the most cynical people in American politics, and they have successfully manipulated the mainstream media once again.

Debate III: Return of the Frat Boy

What did we learn about Bush from the last debate?

He doesn't believe terrorism can ever be reduced to a "nuisance," which means he believes the War of Terror will be a war without end.

Not only has he seemed to have forgotten Osama bin Laden, he has forgotten what he has said about the Al Qaeda leader, probably because he's not "that worried about him."

Outsourcing is okay with Bush when it comes to the flu vaccine. First he tried England (payback for Iraq?) then Canada, the same country he will not allow seniors to buy cheap prescription drugs from, saying it's too dangerous.

Bush says Kerry's empty promises are called "bait-and-switch." His are called individual retirement and health savings accounts.

The deficit was not caused by Bush's massive tax cuts and record spending. It's the fault of the Clinton recession, the stock market crash, and the attacks of 9/11. In the Bush administration, they pass the buck like a hot potato.

He sent his budget man up to Congress to show how he plans to reduce the deficit by half in five years. The budget man hasn't been heard from since.

He believes his tax cuts were "fair" because "most" of the money went to low- and middle-income Americans. Would he like some cheese with that Whopper?

He says the answer to unemployment and minimum wage jobs is No Child Left Behind. Apparently the poor and jobless should go back to grade school.

He believes health care costs have increased by 36 percent under his watch because the health industry is still in the "buggy and horse days." His solution: the Internets.

Bush really wanted to extend the assault-weapons ban but didn't push it because he was told it was never "going to move" in a House and Senate controlled by his party.

Actually, Bush did meet with the Congressional Black Caucus. It was the NAACP he snubbed. Clearly, he has a nuanced position on black leadership.

He doesn't know if being gay is a choice or not, which prompted Chris Matthews to wonder: when did Bush decide to be straight?

Finally, he prays a lot. And since he's become president, so do we.

DEBATE: Litmus Tests

Bush's slip in the third debate was about Osama, but his big, calculated lie last night was, as in the second debate, about the Supreme Court. Bush said he wouldn't apply a "litmus test" to any judicial appointments, and then fell silent. But in the second debate he elaborated, saying he wanted "strict constructionists." 

In evangelical circles this is code for anti-Roe judges, because the litmus test for a strict constructionist is opposition to Roe. Bush's favorite justices, Scalia and Thomas, are strict constructionists. Ginsburg and Breyer are not. If this weren't enough, Bush went on to say he wanted the kind of judge who opposes Dred Scott, the 1857 decision that extended the property rights of slave-owners.

This confused many people, as Katha Pollitt explains in the current issue of Nation. Who supports Dred Scott? Was this another one of Bush's mental lapses? Or was it a painfully awkward Republican appeal to black voters? Actually no. According to Slate, and as Pollitt elaborated, Dred Scott is also code for Roe in anti-choice circles. When Christian conservatives want to denigrate Roe, they compare it to Dred Scott.

So Bush apparently felt the need to reassure conservative evangelicals that he intends to apply an anti-Roe litmus test with not one but two coded references, one for each of the only two votes it would take to outlaw legal abortion in the United States. Yet another example of why we can't trust Bush to tell us the truth.

For more on last night's debate, click here to read my contribution to a forum hosted by TomPaine.Com which also included American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky and Campaign for America's Future co-founder Roger Hickey.

DEBATE: Preparing for the End

To be continued. That is, nothing was resolved during the final encounter between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The challenger certainly outperformed the title-holder--perhaps not by much, but probably by enough for Kerry to reinforce his standing as a credible alternative to Bush. But at Arizona State University in Tempe neither man landed a decisive blow that could be expected to change the contours of the remaining campaign. With the focus on domestic issues, this face-off took a rather traditional shape. Bush attacked Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts with no record of real accomplishment, and he touted his tax cuts as the cure-all for the economy's ills (which he barely acknowledged). Kerry assailed Bush as a handmaiden of corporate America who is out of touch with middle-class workers, and he promised to fight for the folks Bush has neglected. Alongside this conventional political warfare was the continuing back-and-forth on national security. This time out, Bush accused Kerry not of being inconsistent or personally weak, as he has done previously. Instead, Bush whacked Kerry for favoring a timid defensive strategy in the so-called war on terrorism, and he contended that his own "comprehensive" offensive approach would protect America the best. Kerry argued that Bush had not kept his eye on the "real war on terrorism," and Kerry vowed to do better.

Though the policy differences between the two were sharp, it is hard to know if this debate will affect the attitudes of those 37 voters in Toledo who haven't yet made up their minds. In the media tent after the debate, Kerry campaign aides pointed to the instant polls that showed Kerry the victor--a CNN poll had Kerry winning by 52 to 39 percent--and asked, how could going 3-and-0 in the debates not boost Kerry? But it may be possible that the few undecided voters left do not equate debating with leading. The Bush spinners even insisted that their man had won. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told me that it was clear Bush had trounced Kerry because Bush "had clear-cut plans" on Social Security and health care and because he depicted Kerry as a liberal. But when I mentioned to him that the polls had Kerry the winner, Frist quickly changed course and noted that was only due to the "stylistic" difference between the two: Kerry is a "prep-school debater, who stands up straight and has tailored suits. And at the end of the day, the voters don't want an Ivy League liberal who is well-coiffed, well-tailored, and who is bad on the substance." (Didn't Bush go to two Ivy League schools? I asked. "Yes," Frist said with that grin of a spinner who doesn't buy his own spin, "and I went to one, too.")

Not to lose sight of substance--and there was a fair bit of substance in the debate--Bush did not answer moderator Bob Schieffer's question on Social Security. The news anchor asked Bush where he would find the $1 trillion necessary to cover the policy he fancies (letting younger workers take money out of Social Security for private retirement account while not cutting benefits for current recipients). Bush only replied, "we're of course going to have to consider the costs." Kerry, for his part, used this question as an opportunity to whack Bush for being fiscally irresponsible and for proposing a change in Social Security that would have to lead to slashes in benefits. But when Schieffer asked Kerry what he would do about Social Security, Kerry noted that before dealing with Social Security he would deal with the budget deficit and attempt to boost economic growth. Kerry said:

"Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we'll pull together the top experts of the country. We'll do exactly what we did in the 1990s. And we'll make whatever adjustment is necessary. But the first and most important thing is to start creating jobs in America. The jobs the president is creating pay $9,000 less than the jobs that we're losing. And this is the first president in 72 years to preside over an economy in America that has lost jobs, 1.6 million jobs."

Kerry repeatedly made jobs the issue. And Bush's response was basically tax cuts, tax cuts, and tax cuts. (Bush stretched the truth quite thin when he claimed, "Most of the tax cuts went to low and middle income Americans, and now the tax code is more fair, 20 percent of the upper income people pay about 80 percent of the taxes in America today because of how we structured the tax cuts." (The top 1 percent received more from his tax cuts than the bottom income groups, and government figures show that the tax burden has been eased on the wealthy and increased on middle-income taxpayers.) Kerry called for raising the minimum wage, for addressing the gender gap in pay, for providing health insurance coverage to children and families with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level, and for ending a tax loophole that offers companies an incentive to outsource. (Much of this was good material for the Democratic base.) Bush referred to health savings accounts, which work mainly for people who have the financial resources to purchase them. And Kerry's spin brigade were ecstatic about Bush's response to a question on the minimum wage. Should it be raised? Schieffer asked. Kerry said yes, and offered a host of facts to back up his position, adding

"One percent of America got $89 billion last year in a tax cut, but people working hard, playing by the rules, trying to take care of their kids, family values, that we're supposed to value so much in America -- I'm tired of politicians who talk about family values and don't value families."

In response, Bush spent about five seconds discussing the minimum wage, maintaining he supported some plan to raise it that he declined to describe. Then he abruptly changed the subject to education legislation. When Schieffer asked Bush what he would tell an American worker who had lost his or her job to a worker overseas making 50 cents an hour, Bush again used the occasion to talk about his No Child Left Behind Act. And when Schieffer asked Bush if he "would like to overturn Roe v. Wade," Bush ducked the question and vowed he would not apply a litmus test to his judicial appointees. Kerry replied, "Well, again, the president didn't answer the question. I'll answer it straight to America. I'm not going to appoint a judge to the Court who's going to undo a constitutional right."

Bush kept challenging Kerry's credibility on tax and fiscal matters, claiming Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes and 277 times to exceed budget caps. Kerry refused to yield any ground: "I have supported or voted for tax cuts over 600 times. I broke with my party in order to balance the budget." And he quipped, "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country." He accused Bush of having cut Pell grants for college students and job training. He was relentless in assailing various Bush policies and tried to position himself as the champion of the middle class. An example:

"The American middle-class family isn't making it right now, Bob. And what the president said about the tax cuts has been wiped out by the increase in health care, the increase in gasoline, the increase in tuitions, the increase in prescription drugs. The fact is, the take-home pay of a typical American family as a share of national income is lower than it's been since 1929. And the take-home pay of the richest 1 percent of Americans is the highest it's been since 1928. Under President Bush, the middle class has seen their tax burden go up and the wealthiest's tax burden has gone down. Now that's wrong."

Kerry spent much of his time slamming Bush's policies and decisions. He came down hard on Bush for blocking the reimportation of drugs from Canada and for preventing Medicare from negotiating bulk drug purchases. Bush endeavored to make Kerry the issue. "You know," Bush said, "there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts." Bush claimed Kerry has been a do-nothing senator who has only managed to pass five bills during his long career in the Senate. Kerry claimed he had passed 56 bills. After the debate, Bush spinners--including campaign aide Tucker Eskew--pointed to Kerry's 56-bill defense as a Gore moment, meaning it was a whopper. Referring to this comment, Eskew said, "Kerry may have signed his own death warrant." Kerry aides did not come across as worried about this. "If they think that's their big win tonight," Joe Lockhart said, "that tells you everything. I am glad they thing that's their big win." (After the debate, the Kerry campaign immediately released a list of the 56 bills and resolutions Kerry had passed. Not every entry on the list was an impressive legislative accomplishment. For instance, the list included a joint resolution designating October 22 through 28, 1989, as "World Population Awareness Week.")

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When you're done reading this article,visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Bruce Springsteen and John Kerry, what Washington insiders say about the presidential race, and the fuss over the latest WMD report.

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On national security, Bush continued with the gameplan: make Kerry and his ideas look feeble. "My opponent," Bush said, "has got a plan of retreat and defeat in Iraq." Bush stuck to the tactic of misconstruing Kerry phrases and presenting them as dramatic evidence of impotence. "My opponent just this weekend," Bush said, "talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling." (Actually, Kerry said that he hoped that one day terrorism will be seen as a nuisance.) Bush again claimed that Kerry would turn over US national security decisions to other nations (meaning, mostly, France). "In our first debate he proposed America pass a global test," Bush maintained. "In order to defend ourselves, we'd have to get international approval." Kerry countered, "I will never allow any country to have a veto over our security." But Bush set up a new dichotomy: in the war on terrorism, Bush is willing to go on the offense, yet Kerry is too wed to a defensive mindset. In other words, I will kick more butt than he will.

In spin alley, I asked Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman what was the basis for Bush's claim that Kerry was in favor of "retreat and defeat in Iraq." He replied that Kerry had once said the goal was to remove troops from Iraq in six months. (Kerry and his aides have said that if all goes well--which may be wishful thinking--the United States could start to draw down troops in Iraq next summer.) But what about that "global test" charge? Bush keeps saying that Kerry would give other nations a veto over US national security decisions, and Kerry has specifically said that he would not. Mehlman quickly hit his fallback position: "We need to look at [the global test remark] in the context of everything [Kerry] has said...and his 20-year record...A reasonable person would assume he would take an approach that is weaker and more defensive."

Standing a few feet from Mehlman, Eskew claimed that Kerry has a "fetish for the UN." An NPR reporter then pointed out that Kerry supported the military action in Kosovo, which was not okayed by the UN. "An exception," Eskew huffed. And, the NPRer continued, Kerry voted to grant Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, which was not based on UN approval. "And he has continued to complain about it," Eskew shot back. Don't let facts interfere with good spin.

In response to the first question of the night, Kerry argued that Bush has not done all he could have on such crucial homeland security issues as port security, airliner cargo inspection, and funding for police and firefighters. Kerry did not hit the war in Iraq as hard as he might have. Tonight, he was the advocate of the middle-class, the fight-for-you guy. "The public got a real sense," Kerry aide Joe Lockhart said after the debate, "that Bush does not sense what the middle class is going through." Campaign adviser Bob Shrum noted, "On jobs, Bush gave excuses." But do voters believe Kerry can do better? Up to now, the polls have not been that strong for Kerry on this front. "John Kerry," Shrum said, "talks about being able to defend this country and to fight for people while the president sides with powerful special interests." Shrum claimed that according to the campaign's focus group--members of which registered their opinion of the debate as it happened--Bush's answer to the question on the flu vaccine shortage was a "disaster." Bush blamed the problem on a British company and suggested that younger and healthy Americans not get a flu shot. "Excuses and not much policy," Shrum said.

After debates that were dominated by Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism, each campaign used the final side-by-side to prepare for the final 20 days. Without Iraq, this would be a classic Democrat-Republican confrontation: a crusader for the middle class versus the uncaring corporatist, or a hardworking tax-cutter against a profligate liberal. In this sort of match-up, Kerry--at least in the debate--seemed to have the advantage. But then there's the war. Can Kerry stay on the I'm-fighting-for-you message? (Shrum noted that in this debate Kerry made a concerted effort to look into the camera in order to address people at home.) Or will events--or Bush attacks--force Kerry to respond to other issues, such as the war? Will Bush stick with his you're-a-weak-liberal strategy? Is there still fire in that old chestnut? (Shades of 1988!) Can Bush escape becoming bogged down politically in Iraq? And if Bush continues to lash out at Kerry, will his unfavorable ratings keep rising?

All three debates appear to have put Kerry on even (or near-even) footing with Bush, a wartime president. The spinners from the different camps may disagree over who won the concluding debate. They have to; that's their job. But they all were saying the contest is oh-so tight. (Be prepared for recounts in more than one state, some advised.) No side was claiming that it expected to see a large swing of voters to its candidate. Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said the "natural state" of the contest is 50-50. And (in public) Bush strategist Karl Rove agreed. After the debate, a reporter asked him, "How do you explain why this is a statistical dead heat?" Rove replied, "Because it's a close race."

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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! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." 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." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

The Race Right Now

On the eve of the final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, everything has changed -- again. And it could all change once more tonight. But here is where the race stands right now:

READING THE POLLS: The race for the presidency is as close as it has been at any time during this long campaign. Neither Bush nor Kerry has opened a consequential lead in recent days. No matter what survey you look at -- those with Bush in the lead or those with Kerry out front -- the two men are within the margin of error. That's a notable improvement for Kerry, who was clearly behind in a number of national surveys before the first presidential debate. Kerry's trajectory has been an upward one since that initial face-off with Bush. All the polling suggests that the Democrat benefitted not only from his own performance in the first debate but also from public reaction to the vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate.

Beneath the top line numbers that show Kerry and Bush essentially tied, there are powerful trends at work. They tend generally to favor the Democrat, although he still faces serious challenges heading toward November 2. Kerry's personal and issue-by-issue approval ratings have risen dramatically since the first debate. According to the CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released 10/12, Americans surveyed now say Kerry would do a better job than Bush on virtually every major domestic issue: protecting the environment (29 point advantage), improving access to health care (19 point advantage), preserving Medicare (15 point advantage), eliminating deficits (13 point advantage), preserving Social Security (9 point advantage), aiding education (7 point advantage), shoring up the economy (4 point advantage), maintaining a woman's right to choose (4 point advantage) and promoting stem cell research (20 point advantage). Only on the question of taxes did Bush have an advantage, with those surveyed favoring the president by a 51-44 margin.

Where Bush maintains an advantage is on a pair of critical foreign policy issues: handling the mess in Iraq and pursuing the war on terrorism. On Iraq, Bush has a 51-44 advantage. On the war on terror, the Republican outpaces the Democrat by a whopping 56-39. While it is clear that Bush benefits most from the meticulously-nurtured impression that he would be a stronger defender of the US than Kerry, even this advantage is vulnerable. Forty-six percent of Americans now say it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq. And the percentage of Americans who believe it was worth going to war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the invasion of that country in March 2003. Only 44 percent of Americans now believe the war was worth doing. That's down from 59 percent at the start of the year, and from 49 percent just one month ago.

Notably, Bush's overall job approval rating is at the lowest level so far this year. Where 60 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job in January, and 52 percent gave the president their O.K. as recently as September 5, only 47 percent now approve.

Going into Wednesday night's final presidential debate, Kerry has an format advantage. The focus is supposed to be on domestic issues, his greatest area of strength. But watch for Bush to try and stall the Democrat's momentum by turning the discussion toward national security issues. For Kerry, the challenge is to use his last unfiltered appearance before the American people to focus on his areas of strength while addressing his vulnerabilities on those terrorism-security-safety issues. The Democrat needs to make linkages that are difficult, but certainly not impossible. It is a good bet that Kerry will focus on flaws in Bush's approach to homeland security with an emphasis on how a proper level of investment in programs and infrastructure will make the United States safer and might reasonably be expected to expand access to health care and create some new jobs. It is an even better bet that Bush will avoid that kind of nuance. The phrase "tax-and-spend liberal" -- or some variation on that line -- will be Bush's preferred response to Kerry's thrusts -- setting the theme for the post-debate period of the campaign.

BATTLEGROUND STATES: Before the first debate, Kerry was in serious trouble in a number of the competitive "battleground" states where the election is likely to be decided. For the most part, the improvement in the Democratic candidate's fortunes has been reflected at the state level. In New Hampshire, which went for Bush in 2000, Kerry now leads by a 49-42 margin, according to a new Manchester Union-Leader/Franklin Pierce College Poll. In New Jersey, which went solidly for Gore in 2000 but seemed close for a time this year, two new polls have Kerry with a decent if not comfortable lead -- 47-40 for the Democrat in the Newark Star-Ledger/Rutgers University survey; 49-41 for the Democrat in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University survey. In Wisconsin, a state Gore narrowly won in 2000, Kerry had trailed by as much as 10 points in some September polls; he is now back within the margin of error -- a new CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll has it: Bush 49, Kerry 46. In Missouri, where Kerry had fallen well behind, he is now just two points away from Bush, according to a new KSDK-TV/Survey USA poll. On the other hand, North Carolina, which had seemed to be in play, now appears to be solidly in Bush's column. Florida also seems to be moving slowly into Bush's column. That drift is offset by Ohio, a Bush state in 2000 where polls show Kerry well ahead of where Gore was four years ago. Registration patterns in Ohio favor the Democrats but GOP numbers are also up, meaning that this state will be ground zero for Get-Out-the-Vote efforts by both parties.

Most interesting new development: Colorado, which went big for Bush in 2000, appears to have become a battleground state. The CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 each. Other recent polls put Bush ahead, but with Kerry competitive. Watch for both campaigns to shift resources and campaign schedules Colorado's way.

NEWSPAPER ENDORSEMENTS: The Portland Oregonian newspaper, which in 2000 gave a strong endorsement to George W. Bush, on Sunday endorsed John Kerry. "When George W. Bush took office in a deeply divided nation, he promised to reach out to unite the country. If anything, he has helped make the rifts deeper. That may be his real failure as president," the editors of the Oregonian explained. "John Kerry can do better." The Oregonian followed the lead of another large west-coast paper, the Seattle Times, which backed Bush in 2000 but this year came out strong for Kerry, declaring, "The election of Kerry would sweep away neoconservative war intellectuals who drive policy at the White House and Pentagon." So far, according to Editor & Publisher, Kerry has been endorsed by newspapers with a combined circulation of 2,534,377 to newspapers with a combined circulation of 637,187 for Bush. No major newspaper that backed Gore in 2000 has endorsed Bush this year.

SENATE RACES: The race for control of the Senate, while largely neglected by national media, remains competitive.

Democrats could to pick up as many as four US Senate seats that are currently held by Republicans: Polls have Democratic candidates ahead in Illinois, Alaska, Oklahoma and Alaska. Illinois appears to be a certain pick-up state, with Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican Alan Keyes by 30 to 40 points in the polls. The rest of the states are much closer but clearly competitive. Perhaps the most amazing upturn in Democratic fortunes has been in Oklahoma, where the party's nominee, US Rep. Brad Carson, has received a big hand from his Republican foe, former US Rep. Tom Coburn. The Republican seems to go from crisis to crisis. Coburn has been caught up in scandals regarding sterilizations he performed as a physician and his frequently bizarre statements. Most recently he announced that "lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom." Newspaper interviews with school superintendents found not a one who could confirm Colburn's report.

Democrats light up when they start talking about Oklahoma. But they get nervous when the talk turns to Senate contests in the south. Democrats are likely to lose at least two of the five southern seats that are being vacated by members of their party. In Georgia, where Democrat-in-name-only Zell Miller is exiting, party nominee Denise Majette trails far behind Republican Johnny Isakson in all polls. In South Carolina, where Democrat Fritz Hollings is stepping down, the party's nominee to replace him, Inez Tenenbaum, has run a tepid campaign that has left her well behind Republican Jim DeMint. But in three other seats where Democratic seats are open -- Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina -- Democratic nominees are running even or ahead.

If Democrats win the four currently Republican-held seats where they are running well, and if they hold at least three of the five southern seats, the next Senate could end up split between a 51-member Democratic caucus (50 party members and one independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with them, and a 49-member Republican caucus.)

Of course, that is the best scenario for Democrats. For a variety of reasons-- including a late rise in the fortunes of Florida Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez and the continued vulnerability of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is running no better than even in most South Dakota polls – the better bet is for a 50-50 split. Of course, if Kerry wins the presidency, John Edwards will be breaking the ties.

Even that scenario could fall apart of Bush turns out to have coattails in western and southern states where he will win by wide margins. But few observers expected the Senate to be in play at this point, and it is. And there may even be a sleeper race where another Democrat could come into contention.

In Kentucky, Dr. Dan Mongiardo, a state senator who is the Democratic nominee, has according to several polls narrowed the gap in the race with Republican US Sen. Jim Bunning. The contest wasn't supposed to be close. But Bunning has engaged in such bizarre behavior that he has sparked discussion about whether he might be suffering from dementia. Bunning has compared Mongiardo, a respected physician, to the sons of Saddam Hussein. During a visit to Paducah, Bunning requested additional police protection because he said he feared he might be attacked by al-Qaeda while visiting a Quilters' Museum. Then, this week, Bunning refused to appear in person for a long-scheduled debate, instead demanding that he be allowed to take part via satellite from Washington. Bunning aides were so concerned about the impression their boss might make in the debate that they demanded that Mongiardo's campaign agree not to use images of the Republican senator from it. At the same time, Bunning has been airing commercials that falsely suggest that a luxurious home and private jet featured in the ad belong to Mongiardo. The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial page refers to the Bunning ad as "despicable," while the Lexington Herald-Leader described the Bunning ad as so "offensive and unfair" that a voter watching them "might well conclude that politics is an amoral wasteland into which only a masochist would venture."

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has ramped up support for Mongiardo. Smart move; they need to open at least one new front between now and November 2.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com

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Just One Vote

This year the Supreme Court and its future composition should be a bigger issue than ever. Yet, few people, including, curiously, the Democrats, are talking about it. Regardless, as Katha Pollitt says in her latest Nation column,"there is hardly an area of life that will not be affected by the judicial appointments made in the coming years."

And if the Dems won't raise the issue, then groups like the Alliance for Justice are doing their all to raise it for them. This week, in conjunction with the opening of the new Court session, the AFJ launched a new campaign centered on campuses.

The Student Action Campaign mobilizes college and law students around the country with an emphasis on raising awareness of the importance of the Supreme Court both in our everyday lives and as an issue in the presidential election.

As the group says, "Just one vote in the booth in November could make the difference in just one vote on the bench for decades to come." Click here for more info on the AFJ's Supreme Court campaign and click here to help the group extend its efforts.