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Frank Wilkinson's Legacy

When Frank Wilkinson died on January 2nd, obituaries focused on his role as a leading defender of the First Amendment and as a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. But Wilkinson was by all accounts--including the compelling new biography about his life and work, "First Amendment Felon" written by longtime Nation contributor Robert Sherrill--an ordinary, even a conservative, American who became an accidental champion of our right to speak and (by extension) to think what we choose.

For decades, Wilkinson waged a David vs. Goliath battle against the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover and others who illegally wiretapped and harassed domestic dissidents opponent. (In later years, Wilkinson obtained his FBI file--all 132,000 pages of it!)

As many obituaries noted, as a result of a shameful Supreme Court decision, Wilkinson was one of the last two people jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whether he was a Communist. As a result, in 1961 he spent nine months in federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. After prison, Wilkinson spent more than a decade on the road, working with the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, determined to shut down HUAC. When HUAC was finally abolished in 1975, Wilkinson's crusading work was widely cited as a key reason for its demise.

But there was another important part of Wilkinson's legacy--his pioneering work as an activist for affordable public housing--which received too little attention in the national obituaries. Of special significance was his role in the controversial battle of Chez Ravine--a tightly-knit Los Angeles neighborhood--which became a legend of urban planning, inspiring a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder, a play by the Culture Clash Theater group, documentaries and many books and academic articles.

In this spirit, longtime Nationcontributor Peter Dreier and his colleague Jan Breidenbach offer a fascinating tribute, with a sharp focus on the other legacy of Frank Wilkinson, which they've kindly allowed me to publish in this space.


Frank Wilkinson's LegacyPeter Dreier and Jan Breidenbach

The obituaries for Frank Wilkinson, who died January 2 at 91, primarily focused on his role as a leading opponent of McCarthyism and his fervent dedication to the first amendment. The years he spent fighting for our basic freedoms were catalyzed by his own experience in 1958, when he was one of the last people ordered to prison for defying HUAC. After prison, he formed what became the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, and until his death, dedicated his energy and brilliance to our basic rights.

We lose a champion just at the time the assault on our civil liberties is increasing--the Patriot Act, National Security Administration spying--these are only the most egregious of the present Administration's attempt to undo all that Frank stood for.

Frank's dedication to civil liberties is worthy of a book-length memorial. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that he began his career as an activist for affordable housing. His crusade for the first amendment actually began when he was fired from the Los Angeles Housing Authority for his radical politics.

For Wilkinson's generation of idealists -- who came of age in the Depression of the 1930s -- public housing was part of a broad movement for social reform and economic justice. To the extent that public housing now bears the stigma of failure, it is due not to the progressive values that inspired Wilkinson and others, but to the political influence of right-wing forces who fought to undermine public housing from the beginning.

Los Angeles and other cities again face a severe shortage of affordable housing. Many of the same battles that Wilkinson fought 50 years ago -- -- over land use, government subsidies for the poor, racial integration, and "not in my backyard" opposition to low-cost housing -- confront the current generation of public officials and civic leaders.

Frank Wilkinson grew up in Beverly Hills, was a Republican when a student at UCLA and seriously considered becoming a Methodist minister. He joined the new Los Angeles Housing Authority in 1942 when it was an independent agency with the mission of ending slum housing in the city. Under the then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a reform-minded liberal Republican elected in 1938, The LA Housing Authority supported the idea of building decent housing for poor and low-income families and believed in racial integration in the city's developments.

After World War II, Bowron sought to expand the program, especially for the many veterans who faced a desperate housing shortage. He endorsed a plan to raze many homes in the tight-knit Chavez Ravine neighborhood replace them with a large public housing development to be designed by world-class architect Richard Nuetra that would include two dozen 13-story buildings and more than 160 two-story houses, as well as new playgrounds and schools. Bowron, Wilkinson and other reformers viewed the housing plan for Chavez Ravine as a way to improve living conditions poor Angelenos. Opposition to the plan came from immigrants to lived in the area, which was essentially, a rural setting of small shacks, unpaved roads and no city sewer system. Opposition was understandable, given that in spite of these conditions, the people there considered the hills their home. One of the incentives offered to the residents was the absolute promise that they would be the first ones to move into the new housing. In 1950, the plan was presented to them.

While Frank and the Housing Authority wanted to rebuild the neighborhood for the people who lived there, others in the City--businesses leaders and right-wing politicians--agreed to bulldoze the area but for other reasons. Land so close to the city's downtown was worth more exploited for profit that the provision of affordable housing. Using McCarthyite "Red Scare" tactics, these forces combined to characterize the Chavez Ravine proposal -- and public housing in general -- as socialist planning. The attack focused on its leading advocate--Frank Wilkinson--portraying him as a dangerous Communist. Brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer their questions on First Amendment grounds and was fired from his job, tried and sent to federal prison.

The same business leaders who opposed Wilkinson and public housing also ended Bowron's political career. They handpicked Congressman Norris Poulson to run against Bowron and orchestrated his mayoral victory in 1953. During his campaign, Poulson vowed to stop the Chavez Ravine plan and other examples of "un-American" spending. Under Poulson, the city bought back the Chavez Ravine site from the federal government at a cut-rate price.

Los Angeles allowed Chavez Ravine to languish as an almost abandoned slum until the mid1950s, when City Councilman Kenneth Hahn gave the Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley a helicopter tour, pointing out the area's proximity to freeways and downtown. To get O'Malley to bring his team to Los Angeles, the City bulldozed the few remaining homes, forcibly evicting the last residents. No one was relocated into better housing, no decent housing was built for the poor who lived there. Deep ravines were filled in to make the flat playing field of Dodger Stadium.

The "battle of Chavez Ravine" has become a legend of urban planning, inspiring a play by the Culture Clash theater group, a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder, and many books and academic articles.

The attack on Frank Wilkinson as a housing advocate for the poor was only one of many repeated in numerous ways across the country.

Until the Depression, most American opinion leaders believed that the private market, with a helping hand from private philanthropy, could meet the nation's housing needs. In the first three decades of the 20th century, a few unions and settlement house reformers built model housing developments for working class families, but without government subsidy. The nation's economic collapse provided reformers with a political opening to push their "radical" ideas that the federal government should subsidize "social housing" and help create a noncommercial sector free from profit and speculation. Like their European counterparts, they envisioned it for the middle-class as well as the poor.

These reformers - union activists, economists, planners, architects, social workers, and journalists - had faith in the positive role of government on people and communities. They believed that well-designed housing with adequate amenities ) could uplift the poor. They pushed for well-designed, mixed-income, noncommercial, government-subsidized housing projects, sponsored by unions, church groups, other non-profit organizations, and government agencies. During its first few years, the New Deal build a few model developments that reflected this vision. They included day care centers and playgrounds, involved residents in cultural and educational activities, and were physically attractive enough so that middle-class families wanted to live there.

But the reformers were soon outmaneuvered by the real estate industry. The industry -- worried that well-designed and affordable government-sponsored housing would compete with the private sector for middle-class consumers -- warned about the specter of "socialism." After WW2, recognizing the pent-up demand for housing and fearing competition from public housing, the industry mobilized a major campaign against the program. Especially with the federal housing act of 1949, the industry sabotaged the program by pressuring Congress to restrict its funding, give local governments discretion over whether and where to locate developments, and limit it to the very poor. Senators from the South made sure that local governments had the authority to keep public housing racially segregated.

With limited budgets, many projects were poorly constructed and/or badly designed - ugly warehouses for the poor - stigmatizing "government housing" as housing of last resort. Local housing authorities -- typically dominated by business and real estate representatives -- often located public housing developments in areas without adequate stores, transportation, or schools, and isolated from middle-class neighborhoods, contributing to the concentration of poor people in cities. The problems we now associate with public housing were not inevitable. They were due to political choices made in Congress and at the local level.

Public housing became identified with drug wars and crime, places where children are afraid to walk to school, and elderly tenants, for whom hallways and elevators are as dangerous as streets, are afraid to leave their apartments, portrayed more as a trap than a ladder. Eventually, only 1.3 million public housing units were built -- less than 1 percent of the nation's housing -- and this construction came to an end in the Nixon era. Other programs-- rental vouchers for poor tenants and smaller production funding--have been implemented, but the United States effectively walked away from our responsibility to house everyone--including the very poor--when we abandoned public housing.

Today, Washington provides housing assistance for less than one-quarter of the nation's poor. And while the number of poor people has increased since President George W. Bush took office, his administration is cutting housing subsidies for low-income families.

Some federal funds are still used to build new housing for the poor. Ironically, most of today's government-subsidized housing is built by nonprofit community development organizations. They are typically well-designed to fit into neighborhoods and small-scale compared with the massive public housing projects built in the 1950s and 1960s. A growing number of these developments are mixed-income and provide child care, job training, and education and art programs. In other words, they look similar to the kind of projects that early housing reformers and their political offspring, like Frank Wilkinson, envisioned. But without sufficient federal subsidies, these community groups lack the resources to seriously address housing shortage for the poor.

And to this day, right-wing politicians use stereotypes of public housing to attack the very idea of government activism. During his 1996 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said that public housing was "one of the last bastions of socialism in the world", calling the authorities "landlords of misery." More recently, after the Katrina hurricane, Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA) was overheard telling lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

Having the federal government turn its back on housing for all has not made the crisis go away. The nation's cities must address a serious housing crisis, but without the federal government as a partner. In Los Angeles, where Frank lived his entire life, elected leaders and activists are trying to deal with the legacy of the federal neglect, including more than 80,000 homeless people and a housing market where even middle-class families can't afford to buy a home. Finding resources for a local housing trust fund, exploring policies such as inclusionary housing, ‘granny flats' and increased density, and pushing landlords to fix up slum buildings, progressive Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is calling on local housing advocates--and the spirit of Frank Wilkinson--to come up with solutions to an overwhelming crisis.

After Wilkerson emerged from prison, he was not allowed back to work for public housing. Instead, he went on to become one of the nation's leading civil rights activists. Like his fight to protect the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, Frank Wilkinson viewed decent, safe, affordable housing as a basic human right. He was an inspiration to tens of thousands of activists in this nation. In his memory, we recommit ourselves to dismantling the Patriot Act, as he fought to dismantle HUAC. And in his memory, we fight for a safe, decent and affordable place to call home--for all.

Peter Dreier teaches political science and directs the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. Jan Breidenbach is the executive director of the So CA Association of Non-Profit Housing and Housing LA.

"Principled" Embrace of Abramoff

Best response to the Abramoff Scandal? That's easy.

As just about everyone else in Congress is rushing to dispose of campaign contributions received from GOP super-lobbyist and convicted criminal Jack Abramoff, California Congressman John Doolittle says he's keeping his Abramoff-linked money. Doolittle, a Republican whose various campaign committees collected close $50,000 from Abramoff and the disgraced lobbyist's associates and clients, has been identified as a top target of the Justice Department investigation of Congressional corruption.

But, his office says, it wouldn't look right for the congressman to rid his campaign of Abramoff's dirty dollars. "Congressman Doolittle refuses to give even the slightest appearance of something wrong by returning money that was accepted legally and ethically," says Doolitte aide Laura Blackann. Keeping the money, explains Blackann, "is a matter of principle to the congressman." Suggested slogan for the congressman's reelection campaign: Doolittle's Got the Courage to be Corrupt.

Senators Should Press Alito on Bush v. Gore

When the Senate Judiciary Committee begins questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito this week, Americans will again be reminded of the limitations of the confirmation process for presidential picks to serve on the federal bench.

Alito will lie to the committee, intentionally and repeatedly.

In keeping with the standard set by all recent high court nominees, he will treat the hearings, and by extension the American people, who the confirmation process is intended to serve, with utter and complete contempt.

Alito will be asked direct questions and he will claim that he cannot answer them for two reasons.

First, in order to avoid broad questions about his legal philosophy, he will claim that he is not able to comment on cases that might come before the court. This is a deliberate dodge, designed not to protect Alito's ability to judge impartially but to avoid revealing whether his ideas are within the mainstream of constitutional interpretation and judicial responsibility.

Second, despite the fact that his proponents would have the Senate and the American people believe that he is a brilliant man with broad executive branch and judicial experience, Alito will claim that he has not seriously considered fundamental questions of law, politics and public policy. This, too, is a deliberate dodge, designed to prevent an examination of how he approaches issues.

If the recent past offers any indication, Alito's refusal to cooperate with the committee will be extensive. When Chief Justice John Roberts faced the committee during his confirmation hearings last fall, he refused to answer more than 60 questions in a single day.

As members of the Judiciary Committee approach what should be their most solemn duty--since they are being called upon to accept or reject a nominee who could serve on the high court long after they have left politics--senators of both parties should be looking for a way to crack the facade of deceit and disrespect that Alito will erect.

Here's one suggestion for how to do that:

Ask the nominee how he would have ruled in the case of Bush v. Gore. Does he agree that the court was right to intervene, for the first time in history, to stop the counting of the ballots that could have determined the result of a presidential contest? Or does he believe, as University of Virginia professor and Supreme Court scholar A.E. Howard has suggested, "Prudence would call for letting the political process run its course"?

Does Alito believe it is possible to reconcile the high court's intervention in an electotal battle with a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution that says Congress, not the court, is charged with settling disputed contests at the federal level?

Does he believe that Justices Antonin Scalia, whose sons were associated with firms that represented George W. Bush's campaign, and Clarence Thomas, whose wife was working with Bush's transition team, should have recused themselves from the deliberations? Does he worry that the decision to intervene in the case might have damaged the court's reputation as an independent body that stands apart from the partisan politics associated with the executive branch?

Of course, Alito will try to avoid such questions, just as Roberts did when Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, made a tepid attempt to raise the issue last year. But Alito has no excuse for refusing to answer.

The case of Bush v. Gore will never come before the court again. And the court itself has ruled that the decision should not be interpreted as setting a precedent. Thus, it is one of the few court decisions that is entirely, and appropriately, open to discussion by a nominee.

And what if Alito claims he hasn't taken the time to consider the case or its issues?

Considering the fact that the case involved the question of who would be the most powerful person on the planet, if Alito claims he wasn't paying attention, there really would not be any question that he is too disengaged to be confirmed to so substantial a position.

Note: If you were a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what would youask Samuel Alito about his record and judicial philosophy? Send us your questions, and as the hearingsunfold, TheNation.com will publish the best of them.

John Nichols is the author of Jews For Buchanan (The New Press), an examination of the 2000 recount debacle in Florida and the Supreme Court intervention that settled the dispute for George W. Bush. Jews for Buchanan can be found at indpendent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com

Will Jackgate Destroy the GOP?

Is Jack Abramoff the gift that will keep on giving? And will he destroy the Republican Party?

It's not a coincidence that Tom DeLay resigned his leadership post--which he was forced to temporarily abdicate once he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign funds--days after Abramoff, the corrupt-Republican-lobbyist-turned-snitch, cut a deal with the feds that will require him to tell all. That certainly will entail sharing whatever he knows about his intimate relationship with DeLay and DeLay's closest political associates, as well as what he knows about other GOP lawmakers, staffers and high-powered Republican operatives (such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist). News reports have already said that up to twenty lawmakers and aides are already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors thanks to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his former partner in sleaze, who also has been cooperating with the feds.

With nervous Republicans angling to toss DeLay overboard, the indicted ex-House majority leader had not much choice but to jump before being unceremoniously shoved aside. But GOPers still have reason for fear for at least two reasons:

1. The Abramoff inquiry is big.

2. As big as the Abramoff probe is, it could extend far beyond the corrupt dealings of Jack Abramoff and his pals on Capitol HIll and K Street.

My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:

Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy"--suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time.

Nearly 50 agents chasing down Abramoff leads across the country? Republicans far and wide better watch out. (Recall the recent GOP scandal in Ohio, in which the allegedly illegal doings of a top Republican fundraiser stretched to the office of the Republican governor.) On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some of these agents are looking at Alexander Strategy, a leading Republican lobbying firm closely linked to DeLay. Unless the Bush White House dares to muscle the prosecutors, the odds are high that they will nab a bunch of legislators, aides and lobbyists who did shady business with Abramoff, "the middle guy."

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Pat Robertson's latest dumb moves and other in-the-news matters.

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Abramoff probably possesses the keys to many different floodgates, several involving DeLay. (How about that deal in which Russian energy interests donated $1 million--via a British law firm--to a political outfit set up by DeLay and did so at a time when there was legislation in Congress to back lMF loan guarantees that would benefit these interests?) But here's why the Abramoff scandal might grow larger than Abramoff's wide-ranging dealings: Once prosecutors start to look for crimes, they often find them. Moreover, once they penetrate a corrupt organization (say, the mob) and begin nailing people, they frequently find sources who squeal on others and disclose crimes unrelated to what brought the investigators knocking.

Look at Sunday's Los Angles Times. As DeLay is sinking, sources are coming forward to tell of misdeeds heretofore unknown to the citizenry. The paper reports:

In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions.

Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz, documents recently obtained by The Times show. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was seeking $300 million from Hurwitz for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.

The investigation was ultimately dropped.

The effort to help Hurwitz began in 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a "form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees." When the FDIC persisted, Doolittle and Pombo--both considered proteges of DeLay--used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.

Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.

The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as "a seamy abuse of the legislative process." But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz, who had owned a controlling interest in the United Savings Assn. of Texas. United Savings' failure was one of the worst of the S&L debacles in the 1980s.

Doolittle and Pombo did not respond to requests for interviews last week.

This may have nothing to do with the Abramoff mess or DeLay's troubles in Texas, but this story is no doubt emerging at this moment--and may be on interest to prosecutors now--because of these other difficulties.

As FBI agents zero in on suspects--whether they be lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, consultants or fundraisers--the only way out for many of these well-connected and influential people will be tell the investigators something they do not know already. So if you're a chief of staff to a House member and you're faced with the prospect of doing several years at a different sort of federal institution than the one you're used to, what are you going to do? Say whatever it takes to cut a deal. And if you know about untoward and possibly criminal activity that is not connected to already-wide Abramoff scandal, that may well be your stay-out-of-jail card. Imagine if a dozen or more Washington insiders--and we are talking predominantly about Republicans--find themselves in this sort of situation. It could be Christmas every day for the anti-corruption squad at the Justice Department. That is, if the lawyers there are prepared to mount an investigation that pursues serious leads that take them beyond Abramoff terrain. (And don't forget the recent news that Representative Duke Cunningham, the Republican who recently resigned from the House after being caught accepting bribes from a military contractor, wore a wire for the feds before leaving the House. Whom did prosecutors ask him to talk to?)

I'm not predicting all this will occur. But any member of Congress, congressional aide or executive branch official who has engaged in criminal activity ought to be really enjoying their freedom and position at this time. Who knows who will be selling out whom? Yuppies in blazers and khakis usually don't practice omerta very well. If prosecutors play this right, they could end up with an ever-lengthening to-do--and to-get--list.

On Pat Robertson and Divided You Fall from Grace

Pat Robertson's God sure has been angry of late, smiting on a scale not seen since Sodom and Gomorrah. First, the Lord collapsed the Twin Towers because of homosexuals, then drowned New Orleans because of abortions, and now He has apparently, according to the kindly Reverend Robertson, blocked a blood vessel in Ariel Sharon's brain as punishment for "dividing God's land."

Excuse me? If divisiveness is such a sin in God's eyes, why is Pat Robertson at 75-years-of-spit-and-vinegar still with us? But perhaps he is onto something. Certainly a surprising number of divisivefigures have been brought low of late.

First, there was Harriet Miers, who divided the GOP (God's Own Party) and had her nomination to the Supreme Court struck down. Then Bill O'Reilly was slapped down on Letterman for dividing America, the promised land, over the holiday season.

And finally just this weekend, Tom DeLay, who re-divided political districts in Texas and lobbyists on K-Street, was permanently removed from his post as majority leader.

Who might be next? While I'm not as confident as Robertson when it comes to interpreting God's will, if dividing not uniting a land is cause for divine retribution, then Karl Rove better start polishing his resignation letter.

Sweet Victory: Huge Win for Wal-Mart Workers

Try as it might, no amount of spin from Wal-Mart's multimillion-dollar war room in Bentonville, Arkansas can undo the latest bit of bad news for the world's largest corporation.

On December 22, a California jury ordered Wal-Mart to pay MNG1RGC5F437.DTL">$172 million in damages to more than 100,000 current and former Wal-Mart workers, who had been unjustly and routinely denied meal breaks.

According to Fred Furth, the plaintiffs' lawyer, the retail behemoth violated California's strict mandatory meal break law 8 million times between January of 2001 and May of 2005.

"Sam Walton established a mantra: the store manager must every year increase sales and reduce labor costs. But that is an oxymoron--they're lowering the prices on the backs of the people who work for them," said Furth. "That is why I spent four months of my life at 71 years old making the point to corporate America that we are not in industrial England anymore. We're in the 21st century and these are good workplace rules, and you've got to obey them."

The California verdict could have a staggering impact on Wal-Mart, which is facing forty similar lawsuits in other states nationwide. "It absolutely sends a message to other juries," said Furth, "that even the biggest company in the world can be brought to task."

Shares of Wal-Mart are already down 8 percent this year. (Even hard-nosed investment analysts now see that Wal-Mart is no longer invincible.) As public support for the retailer continues to plummet, it's become abundantly clear that Wal-Mart better start evolving.


More good news in the fight to reform Wal-Mart: the New York Times reports that the AFL-CIO is launching a new initiative to introduce Fair Share Health Care acts in 31 states across the country.

The laws will mirror Maryland's legislation that would require Wal-Mart and other large corporations to devote a significant share of their profits to health care for employees. Note: Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich vetoed the Maryland measure, but an overturn is extremely likely due to overwhelming support in the legislature. If you're from Maryland, click here to email your lawmakers and ask them to support the bill.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Samuel Alito v. James Madison

No member of the Senate who takes seriously the oath they have sworn to defend the Constitution will vote to confirm judicial activist Samuel Alito's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

To a greater extent than any nominee for the high court in recent memory, and very possibly in the long history of the country, Alito has placed himself clearly and unequivocally at odds with the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and the incontrovertible language of the document.

Alito is consistently on record as favoring steps by the White House to -- in his words -- ''increase the power of the executive to shape the law." Twenty years ago, as a member of the Reagan administration, Alito was in the forefront of efforts to legitimize executive power grabs designed to allow presidents to take dramatic actions, sometimes in secret, without the advice and consent of Congress.

In a 1986 draft memo that advised Reagan and his aides on how to assure that their interpretations of official actions trumped those of the legislative branch, Alito acknowledged that his approach would put the White House at odds with the Congress. "The novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power are two factors that may account for this anticipated reaction," Alito argued. "In addition, and perhaps most important, Congress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get in the last word on questions of interpretation."

The Reagan administration never fully embraced Alito's proposals, but the Bush administration has. And Alito has been cheering the process of executive power enhancement on, telling the Federalist Society in an address five years ago that, "The president has not just some executive powers, but the executive power -- the whole thing."

The "whole-thing" approach adopted by George Bush and Dick Cheney has placed the current administration on a collision course with the Constitution. And it will be the Supreme Court that must sort through the wreckage.

With the high court widely expected to rule on multiple cases involving questions about presidential warmaking, the War Powers Act and domestic manifestations of the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror," the position of every justice on issues of executive authority becomes more significant. And potential changes in the court that might make it more deferrent to an executive branch that appears to be bent on eliminating all checks and balances -- as the confirmation of Alito would surely do -- are, necessarily, the most consequential of matters.

What is at issue here is not a grey area of the legal interpretation.

The authors of the Constitution were absolutely determined to prevent presidents from making war without the consent of Congress, and from abusing a state of war to curtail domestic liberties.

James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution who would go on to serve as the nation's fourth president, expressed the concern of the founders when he wrote: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Madison added that, "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."Madison's view was confirmed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegates overwhelmingly approved a motion to deny presidents the power to "make war." That resolution was introduced by Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman, another key player in the shaping of the document, who explained that, "The executive should be able to repel and not to commence war."

George Mason, the Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who is often remembered as "the Father of the Bill of Rights," said at the time, "I am for clogging rather than facilitating war."

John Marshall, a participant in the Virginia ratifying convention that approved the Constitution, would go on to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that capacity, he would be called upon to interpret the Constitution with regard to the exercise of war powers by the executive. Writing for a unanimous court in 1801, Marshall asserted that, "The whole powers of war being, by the Constitution of the United States, vested in Congress, the acts of that body alone can be resorted to as our guides."

Much has been done to undermine the system of checks and balances that the founders wrote into the Constitution to control against executive excess. But, as recently as 2004, the court reaffirmed the basic principle that the president must operate within strict constraints in a time of war. Ruling that the Executive Branch does not have the power to hold indefinitely a U.S. citizen without basic due process protections, the court rebuked the Bush administration's actions with an opinion that declared, "A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

The author of that statement was Sandra Day O'Connor, the retiring justice who Alito has been nominated to replace.

Justice O'Connor, who could hardly be referred to as a strict constuctionist, was not merely expressing an opinion with her defense of checks and balances on the executive. She was affirming the Constitution, and she was doing so in a manner that respected the intentions of the founders -- something Samuel Alito's record suggests that he is entirely incapable of doing.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) examines the long record of Congressional checks and balances upon presidential abuses in times of war. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

'Out of Iraq'

Attacks by suicide bombers killed as many as 130 people in Iraq yesterday, rekindling fears of a return to mass sectarian killings after a relative lull. At the same general time yesterday afternoon, a roadside bomb killed at least five American soldiers near Karbala, Iraq.

It's days like these that inspired grassroots organizers to plan more than 130 "Out of Iraq" events around the country to take place on January 7th. Most of the events are town hall forums featuring peace movement leaders, congressional staff, congressional and senatorial candidates, local elected officials and members of Congress, including Bobby Scott, Diane Watson, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, Bob Filner, Martin Sabo, Jim Moran, Marty Meehan, and John Murtha.

Click here to find an event near you.

Click here for info on organizing an event yourself.

Download and pass out a flier.

Then, on January 9th, it's easy to take part in the National Call-In Day on Accountability. Progressive Democrats of America and the After Downing Street Coalition are asking concerned citizens to phone their members of Congress in their district offices on Monday urging them to join Cong. John Conyers and cosponsor three bills: H.Res.635 to create a select committee to investigate and to make recommendations on grounds for impeachment, H.Res.636 to censure Bush, and H.Res.637 to censure Cheney.

If you agree with Conyers that "there is substantial evidence the President, the Vice President and other high-ranking members of the Bush Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their Administration," then click here to call and email your elected reps.

Watch this space for continuing coverage of antiwar activities and use the comments field below to let us know about any antiwar events in your area.

Abramoff , The GOP Corruption Machine & What Dems Need to Do

It didn't take Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to three felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion to understand that the scale of corruption in the GOP-dominated Congress had risen to obscene heights. But it sure helps expose the cesspool of corruption in that GOP-dominated Congress.

"When this is all over, this will be bigger than [any government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it," Stan Brand , a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing, told Bloomberg News. "It will include high-ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials."

But what is to be done? Take a lesson from the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold who, last July, launched a crackdown on government corruption.

In July, the tough-minded reformer, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Representative Martin Meehan (D, MA) has similar legislation pending in the House).

The bill's key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit "lobbyists from giving gifts to members" or staff and require "members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel."

Such a law--and even hardcore DC cynics may want to give it a better chance of passage after the Abramoff scandal winds its way through DC---would arrive just barely in the nick of time. The Center for Public Integrity published a must-read study last April showing that lobbyists have spent almost $13 billion since 1998seeking to influence federal legislation and federal regulations. "Our report reveals that each year since 1998 the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them," the Center's executive director, Roberta Baskin, pointed out.

Other findings are equally heart-stopping. More than 2,000 lobbyists in Washington had previously held senior government jobs, and in the past six years, "49 out of the 50 top lobbying firms failed to file one or more required forms." According to other reports that the Center recently put out, some 650 foreign companies are lobbying the federal government on issues important to them, and spent more than an estimated $3 billion to influence decision-making at the federal level in 2004.

But we need to look beyond the numbers, and understand what happened in 1995 when the GOP launched its infamous K Street Project, to really understand why the corruption has metastasized with such velocity. That was the beginning of the push to put "conservative activist Republicans on K Street," as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told journalist Elizabeth Drew--a concerted effort to install ideological comrades-in-arms who could steer money to the GOP, promote conservative causes in Washington and keep Republicans in power for years to come.

By 2003, the Republicans had achieved the goal of seizing control of K Street. That year, the Washington Post reported that the GOP had seized "a significant number of the most influential positions at trade associations and government affairs offices and reap[ed] big financial rewards." The Post added that "several top officials at trade associations and corporate offices said privately that Republicans have created a culture in Washington in which companies fear hiring Democrats for top jobs, even if they are the most qualified."

In recent months, Abramoff and now- indicted House Leader Tom DeLay have grabbed the headlines--Abramoff, in part, because he paid for Tom DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000 and stole millions of dollars in fees from his clients; and DeLay, in part, because he repeatedly violated House ethics rules. (In fact, from April 1 to June 30, DeLay accepted almost $800,000 in contributions from corporate lobbies like the telecommunications and real estate industries--a sure sign that the corruption continues unchecked, as the progressive group The Campaign for America's Future has argued.)

And, in one more link in the growing Abramoff-DeLay money trail, a recent Washington Post story documented how Abramoff funneled some of the money he had skimmed from Indian casino operators through the Orwellian-named U.S. Family Network--a shell organization with a multi-million dollar budget which was termed by some of DeLay's staffers--Delay's "safe house." (If one needs another reason as to why DeLay must immediately step down as House Majority leader, the Post story also reveals that this organization, organized by DeLay associates, has been largely financed by Russian energy interests.)

But it's equally important to remember that the corruption comes not only from DeLay, Abramoff and cronies but also at virtually every level of the Republican-dominated Congress. The Hill, for example, reported last year that congressional staff have become so brazen that they "actively solicit lunches, drinks and other favors from K Street"--acting as if lobbyists are providing them with "their personal expense account." When one Senate aide ran into a lobbyist at the Capital Grille restaurant, he asked the lobbyist to foot the bill.

"The arrogance that brought Republicans into power is arrogance that will take them out of power, and that's what you see more of on the Hill," a Republican corporate lobbyist told The Hill.

Democrats are likely to pick up seats just by continuing to hammer at GOP failures and corruption, and exposing the DeLay-Abramoff-K Street triangle for the corrupting force it truly is. But to engineer a landmark, "change election" that dislodges incumbents and marks a real shift, they will have to make themselves the party of change, championing a genuine crack down on corruption.

As our Washington correspondent John Nichols wrote yesterday in The Online Beat, "Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage." Feingold's legislation is an essential step in reclaiming our democracy from these pay- to-play, immoral scam artists.