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The Rehnquist Death and Hurricane Katrina UPDATED

I posted the below on my blog: www.davidcorn.com. Please visit that site for other items on Hurricane Katrina and other matters.

I confess: I have a hard time saying William Rehnquist, rest in peace. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died on Saturday night, spent much of his adult life trying to restrict the rights of American citizens and to empower further the already-powerful. He rose to prominence as a right-wing attorney who decried the Earl Warren court for being a hotbed of judicial activism (left-wing judicial activism, as he saw it). He then became, as a Supreme Court justice, a judicial activist of the right-wing sort, overturning laws made by Congress (that protected women against domestic violence, banned guns near school property, and prohibited discrimination against disabled workers) and steering the justices into Florida's vote-counting mess in 2000 (an act that only coincidentally--right?--led to George W. Bush's presidency). In that case--Bush v. Gore--Rehnquist, for some reason or another, placed aside his much heralded belief in state sovereignty, which led him on other occasions to grouse about limits on the abilities of states to execute criminals. When it came to states frying prisoners, he advocated a hands-off approach. In vote-counting, he was all for intervention.

But let's be clear: in recent years there has been no other Supreme Curt justice who had a personal history so loaded with racism--or, to be kinder than is warranted, tremendous insensitivity to racial discrimination--as did William Rehnquist. As a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson in the early 1950s--when the Court was considering the historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case--Rehnquist wrote a memo defending the infamous 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the separate-but-equal doctrine. Rehnquist noted, "That decision was right and should be reaffirmed." In other words, he favored continuing discrimination and racial segregation. During his 1971 confirmation hearings, after he was nominated to serve as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, he said that memo merely reflected Jackson's view not his own. But few historians have bought that shaky explanation.

It's not hard to conclude that Rehnquist was on the wrong side of history and then lied about it--especially given actions he took later. In 1964, Rehnquist testified against a proposed ordinance in Phoenix that would ban racial discrimination in public housing. As The Washington Post notes in today's stories on his death, Rehnquist wrote at the time, "It is, I believe, impossible to justify the sacrifice of even a portion of our historic individual liberty for a purpose such as this." In other words, people are not truly free if they are not free to discriminate. In his 1971 hearings, Rehnquist repudiated that stance. But did he really mean it? Twelve years later, he was the only justice to say that Bob Jones University--that hotbed of racial discrimination and religious bigotry--had a legal right to keep African-Americans off its campus.

"He Lived for The Law"--that's how AOL headlined the story on Rehnquist's death. But it's not that Rehnquist had a blind spot on race. He was an active proponent of discrimination. Yet this fellow--without truly making amends--became chief justice of the highest court of the land. Only in America.

What will George W. Bush do now? Elevate Antonin Scalia to chief justice? Appoint someone who's not already on the court to the job? Will he wait until after the hearings on John Roberts to name his pick? That would be good politics. It would be foolish to add any other factor to the Roberts confirmation process, which, from a White House perspective, is going rather well. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, might Bush look to Edith Clement, a conservative federal appellate judge from New Orleans? Or how about Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American woman and sharecropper's daughter who is now a far-right California state judge (who seems to hate the federal government)? After all the recent talk about poor black people being shafted in New Orleans by the US government, Bush might enjoy standing in the Oval Office with Brown and talking about her personal story. [UPDATE: I know. Bush has tapped Roberts to replace Rehnquist as Supreme Court jefe. Some Dems are asking Bush to announce his choice for the Sandra Day O'Connor vacancy before they have to vote on Roberts, But it's unlikely the White House will yield to this request. The smart political move on Bush's part is to get Roberts confirmed and then pick a new fight.]

No doubt, Bush will make a selection that's better for him than the country--and he will announce his choice at a time and in a manner that best serves his administration. In the meantime, as Rehnquist's impact on America is considered, it ought not be forgotten--particularly at a time when we see how the poor of New Orleans have been neglected--that Rehnquist was at times all too willing to forget about the rights of those less fortunate than he.

'Indifference Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction'

On Friday, during a special session to provide relief money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Representative Dennis Kucinich delivered a powerful indictment of the Administration's disgraceful priorities and issued a stirring call to rebuild a truly secure America.

"This amount of money is only a fraction of what is needed and everyone here knows it. Let it go forward quickly with heartfelt thanks to those who are helping to save lives with necessary food, water, shelter, medical care and security. Congress must also demand accountability with the appropriations. Because until there are basic changes in the direction of this government, this tragedy will multiply to apocalyptic proportions.

"The Administration yesterday said that no one anticipated the breach of the levees. Did the Administration not see or care about the 2001 FEMA warning about the risk of a devastating hurricane hitting the people of New Orleans? Did it not know or care that civil and army engineers were warning for years about the consequences of failure to strengthen the flood control system?  Was it aware or did it care that the very same Administration which decries the plight of the people today, cut from the budget tens of millions needed for Gulf-area flood control projects?

"Countless lives have been lost throughout the South with a cost of hundreds of billions in ruined homes, businesses and the destruction of an entire physical and social infrastructure. 

"The President said an hour ago that the Gulf Coast looks like it has been obliterated by a weapon. It has. Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction.

"Our indifferent government is in a crisis of legitimacy. If it continues to ignore its basic responsibility for the health and welfare of the American people, will there ever be enough money to clean up after their indifference?

"As our government continues to squander human and monetary resources of this country on the war, people are beginning to ask, 'Isn't it time we began to take care of our own people here at home? Isn't it time we rescued our own citizens? Isn't it time we fed our own people? Isn't it time we sheltered our own people? Isn't it time we provided physical and economic security for our own people?' And isn't it time we stopped the oil companies from profiting from this tragedy?

"We have plenty of work to do here at home. It is time for America to come home and take care of its own people who are drowning in the streets, suffocating in attics, dying from exposure to the elements, oppressed by poverty and illness, wracked with despair and hunger and thirst.

"The time is NOW to bring back to the United States the 78,000 National Guard troops currently deployed overseas into the Gulf Coast region.

"The time is NOW to bring back to the US the equipment which will be needed for search and rescue, for clean up and reclamation.

"The time is NOW for federal resources, including closed Army bases, to be used for temporary shelter for those who have been displaced by the hurricane.

"The time is NOW to plan massive public works, with jobs going to the people of the Gulf Coast states, to build new levees, new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges and universities and to rebuild all public institutions, including hospitals. Medicare ought to be extended to everyone, so every person can get the physical and mental health care they might need as a result of the disaster.

"The time is NOW for the federal government to take seriously the research of scientists who have warned for years about the dangers of changes in the global climate, and to prepare other regions of the country for other possible weather disasters until we change our disastrous energy policies.

"The time is NOW for changes in our energy policy, to end the domination of oil and fossil fuel and to invest heavily in alternative energy, including wind and solar, geothermal and biofuels. 

"As bad as this catastrophe will prove to be, it is in fact only a warning. Our government must change its direction, it must become involved in making America a better place to live, a place where all may survive and thrive. It must get off the path of war and seek the path of peace, peace with the natural environment, peace with other nations, peace with a just economic system."

HELP ACORN Fight for Hurricane Relief for All

At a time when this Administration failed to adequately mobilize to help the largely poor and minority communities of the Gulf Coast, please help ACORN, whose national headquarters are in New Orleans. The dedicated community leaders of Lousiana ACORN have long been at the forefront of efforts to win economic justice. ACORN President Maude Hurd writes: "To our friends and supporters around the country, I ask your help: we need your support to open a temporary national headquarters in Baton Rouge, LA, and, as soon as possible, reopen our offices in New Orleans. As we get up and running, we will work to help secure the housing, community services, and other relief our communities will badly need." So, please consider a contribution to the ACORN Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund. Tax-deductible checks can be sent to ACORN Institute--Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund, 739 8th Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003. Or donate online by going to www.acorn.org.

Denny Hastert's Dark Calculus

In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.

But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans "doesn't make sense to me," it would not be a stretch to headline a report: "Hastert to City: Drop Dead."

Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City -- at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city's levees -- the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask "some real tough questions" about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America's most beloved cities. The House Speaker's suggestion that "it makes no sense" for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative "tough love" if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.

Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.

But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert's talk of "tough questions."

Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.

Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.

Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state's 2003 gubernatorial contest.

Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.

Hastert's honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn't want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, "Hey, Denny's just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt" -- much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.

Don't believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That's why New Orleans didn't get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city's aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that's why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.

Don't doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.

In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina's victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert's first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it -- and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.

The Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Numerous Nation readers have written us asking for suggestions on where they can send funds to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina. For straight donations, the American Red Cross is probably as good an outfit as any in the field currently taking contributions. ARC volunteers have been deployed to the hardest hit areas of Katrina's destruction, supplying hundreds of thousands of victims left homeless with critical necessities. Click here to make a dedicated donation to this relief effort.

The Mercy Corps has also assembled a team of relief experts in Louisiana to assist in immediate humanitarian efforts and to plan a long-term strategy to help the most vulnerable survivors of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Click here to help this longtime progressive relief agency respond effectively to the short-and long-term needs of hurricane survivors.

Our friends at MoveOn.org have spearheaded another innovative way to help. HurricaneHousing.org encourages people to donate a short-term place to stay for those made homeless by the disaster. Already, more than 50,000 beds have been offered to our new American refugees. Places in the Southeast are most useful but people anywhere in the US can participate.

It's also worth supporting a group of progressive congressional Democrats who have introduced legislation to protect the thousands of people left financially devastated by Hurricane Katrina from being penalized by anti-debtor provisions contained in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. This unfair law, designed to protect the rich at the expense of the poor, is scheduled to take effect on October 17, 2005. Click here to let your own elected reps know that you expect them to support this bill.

Finally, for a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy, listen to an incredible radio interview with Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, who pulls absolutely no punches. This is as real, and raw, and as heartbreaking as it gets.

With this post, I depart for my summer vacation. I'll be back in this space on Saturday, September 10. In the meantime, my colleague Joan Connell will update this post, if necessary, to ensure that we're highlighting the most effective relief efforts underway.

The Real Gas Gougers

How convenient for the oil industry that Hurricane Katrina hit just before the traditional Labor Day-weekend hike in gas prices. Now, instead of having to fake up some absolutely absurd excuse for jacking up gas prices, the industry can try and dupe Americans into thinking that they are suddenly paying $3.25 a gallon because of a storm.

The oil industry's response to Katrina has provided a reminder of why it is so exceptionally profitable.

Even before a start had been made on assessing the damage caused by the tropical storm, energy corporations were cashing in. And every indication is that they plan to continue doing so--perhaps taking prices over the $4-a-gallon mark, according to James DiGeorgia, editor and publisher of the Gold & Energy Advisor and author of The Global War for Oil.

No one debates the fact that the hurricane has done significant damage to oil rigs, refineries and delivery systems along the Gulf Coast, a region that accounts for roughly 10 percent of US refining capacity. But roughly 90 percent of US refining capacity remains fully functional and, it should not be forgotten, the US has not stopped importing oil.

Additionally, the Bush Administration jumped to the aid of the oil companies long before the relief effort was in full swing.

The Environmental Protection Agency suspended summertime antipollution measures, lifting the requirement that refiners lower fuel volatility and cut sulphur levels. At the same time, the Administration moved to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created more than three decades ago with the precise purpose of boosting fuel supplies in order to keep a lid on rising wholesale gasoline prices in a circumstance such as the one that has now developed.

Despite all the aid they are getting, however, the oil companies are not giving anything back. There is no evidence of a willingness on the part of these highly profitable corporations to sacrifice in a time of national emergency.

Make no mistake: These corporations should be able to absorb a hit. Over the past year and a half, the four largest oil companies--ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP Group PLC--have pocketed close to $100 billion in profits. During the first quarter of 2005 alone, those firms pulled in a cool $23 billion.

But instead of sharing the pain, they appear to be moving to squeeze every cent they can out of the crisis.

With oil-industry friends in charge of the White House and the Congress, don't expect much of a response from the federal level.

But this is one case where states have an ability to intervene.

Three years ago, in a move to protect against gouging, Hawaiian officials enacted legislation that allows state officials to set price caps on gasoline.

Now, as gas prices are skyrocketing in the aftermath of Katrina, a California legislator wants to give a state agency broad authority to regulate the cost of fuel.

State Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Public Utilities Commission to require mandatory fuel reserves, set profit margins for oil and gas companies and order the construction of new pipelines. The measure would also bar agreements between energy corporations to reduce competition.

Dunn's amendment would allow the California Public Utilities Commission to cap prices, although the senator told reporters that step would only be taken as a last resort.

Dunn brings a refreshing bluntness to the discourse. Speaking to the Associated Press, he accused the oil industry of creating a dysfunctional market in California, in which competition is essentially eliminated. That, he explained, is why states need to step up their use of regulatory powers.

"Two years ago, when gasoline cost $2 a gallon, the industry said to give it time and prices would settle down. Now, we're seeing $3 a gallon," Dunn said. "People in California are no longer believing the excuses of the industry. If they can't fix their market behavior, we'll fix it for them."

It is certainly true that consumers should take steps to reduce their use of petroleum products--not just because of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but because of the human, economic and environmental tolls this country's reliance on imported petroleum products has imposed. But petroleum companies should sacrifice as well. And if they are not willing to do so, states should remind them of their patriotic duty.

Hurricane Katrina: Blaming Bush, Being Pro-Looting and More

I just spotted Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, on CNN arguing with anchor Miles O'Brien. O'Brien was suggesting that the federal government dropped the ball in terms of preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Barbour kept defending the federal government--that is, the Bush Administration. He seemed to suggest that the hurricane was not that powerful when it first approached land and that there had not been enough time to do more preparation. Of course, Barbour did not note that before becoming governor of Mississippi he was head of the Republican Party and, therefore, not of a disposition to speak critically of an Administration that has gutted FEMA, slashed funding for flood control and sent many National Guard reserves to Iraq. (By one estimate, about one-third of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq now.) O'Brien pushed his point about as hard as is permitted on cable television. But he neglected to raise these specifics or to question Barbour about his previous work as a corporate lobbyist who, on behalf of his well-paying clients, fought fiercely against the Kyoto accords. (Recent scientific research suggests that global warming has led to more destructive hurricanes.) And, as I noted previously (click here), Barbour led the GOP when it was waging war on Big Government. Now he's all for it. O'Brien didn't query him on this conversion.

Liberal bloggers have banded together to raise money for the hurricane relief efforts and to help our Red State neighbors. (See the ad at my blog: www.davidcorn.com.) The goal, as the ad says, is to raise $1 million. Please consider clicking on the ad (or going straight to the donation page) and doing what you can. In the meantime, I propose putting off the GOP effort to kill the estate tax for millionaires and to devote a portion of those funds for reconstruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. I ask my fellow liberal bloggers to join me in this call, and to raise this question: Will Haley Barbour endorse our campaign?

As the New York Times editorializes today, a moment like this shows Bush's weaknesses. He was late to respond (again!) and his rhetoric was hollow (no surprise). Yesterday he declared, "America will be a stronger place for it." Puh-lease. Did he ask his speechwriters for the most empty platitude they could concoct? Then today he proclaimed there would be "zero tolerance" for looters. But if I were stuck in New Orleans, waiting for help from a government that had failed me, and my family was without water, food or clothes, I'd grab what I could from where I could. I'd worry about payment later. Sure, some looters are criminals exploiting the emergency. But many are people trying to survive. Who would watch their kids go hungry rather than break a window at a Winn-Dixie? Not me. Call me pro-looting-when-it's-necessary.

And if you haven't already seen my college chum Will Bunch's piece on why this disaster did not have to be as bad as it has been--due to federal cutbacks in funds for flood control--check it out here. Bunch works for the Philadelphia Daily News, and he mainly reviewed stories from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Here's an excerpt:

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site, reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming....Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."

In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.

On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Hmmm, a security issue. Flooding? Weather? Global warming? This is far too nuanced a view. I mean, isn't the real threat the terrorists in Iraq who want to destroy America because they hate our freedom (even though they don't seem to mind the freedoms enjoyed by people in, say, Finland)? Hurricane Katrina illuminates bad choices and bad policies. It may have been an act of God. But its devastating impact was also determined by the folly of our leaders.

It also makes me wonder, Can this government deal with one of the nightmare scenarios? A biological weapon? A nuclear detonation? The Bush Administration, according to numerous studies, has not fully funded first responders. Hurricane Katrina shows why this is foolishness.

Enough of a sermon from me. Please give to the relief fund.

Roberts Memos: Who Cares About the Syntax?

I am tired of hearing about what a witty and irascible character John G. Roberts Jr. is, how Roberts, George W. Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, is such a sophisticated--if curmudgeonly--cut-up. There have been numerous newspaper stories that depict Roberts in such terms on the basis of the memos he penned when he worked for the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Yesterday the New York Times front-paged a cute account of Roberts's penchant for proper punctuation. It noted that twenty-three years ago, when he worked for White House counsel Fred Fielding, Roberts was taken with a letter written to the White House because its author, an octogenarian lawyer concerned with an obscure jurisdictional matter, had quoted Plato and Webster and used the word "slumgullion (which means thin stew). This correspondent, Roberts declared, deserved a reply. What a fellow, that Roberts!

I'm more concerned with the content--not style--of his memos and a decades-long trail that shows Roberts has usually favored a narrow reading of rights (such as the "so-called" right to privacy). These memos also suggest he has a tendency to put his intellectual arrogance at work for a political agenda. One memo he co-wrote in 1985 shows that Roberts was not shy about interjecting his own view into policy-making, even if that view had no basis in fact.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Clinton's biggest lie, what Bush really said before the war and Gary Hart's good advice for the Democrats.

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In this September 13, 1985, memo, Roberts, who was still in Fielding's office, wrote about briefing materials that had been prepared for President Ronald Reagan. The material covered several subjects, including the dispute over admitting children with AIDS into public schools. Roberts wrote:

The third bullet item contains the statement that "as far as our best scientists have been able to determine, AIDS virus is not transmitted through casual or routine contact." I do not think we should have the President taking a position on a disputed scientific issue of this sort. He has no way of knowing the underlying validity of the scientific "conclusion," which has been attacked by numerous commentators. I would not like to see the President reassuring the public on this point, only to find out he was wrong later. There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitely cannot be so transmitted. I would simply delete the third bullet item.

Here Roberts was not being merely prudent. Believing he knew best, he was substituting his uninformed opinion for the scientific consensus. Three years earlier, the Centers for Disease Control had declared, "Airborne spread and interpersonal spread through casual contact do not seem likely." And weeks before Roberts wrote this memo, the CDC--after several years of additional research--had noted that children with AIDS attending public schools posed an "apparent nonexistent risk of transmission." The CDC noted that "casual person-to-person contact, as among schoolchildren, appears to pose no risk." At that time, Dr. Martha Rogers, an epidemiologist at the CDC's AIDS branch, told the media, "The reasons I've seen given for keeping [children] out [of public schools] are not very good reasons. We're trying to educate people as to the real transmission modes."

Apparently, Roberts needed such educating. Instead of sticking to the known facts and heeding the word of government scientists, Roberts thought he knew better, and he was willing to substitute his own judgment (which happened to coincide with that of Reagan supporters who were arguing against allowing kids with AIDS into public schools) for the informed conclusion of experts. Yes, this was an isolated episode. But so was Roberts's excitement over the word "slumgullion." But perhaps this is evidence that Roberts will fit in well with the Bush Administration's science-doesn't-matter attitude.

I doubt that such decades-old musings of Roberts will persuade all Democratic senators to oppose the Roberts nomination. But it should not take a gotcha memo--if one does exist--to persuade Democrats to vote against him. Roberts is clearly a fellow of a strong conservative bent. Democrats can argue that the courts have moved too far to the right and simply declare enough is enough. Instead, there is a sense that the Roberts opposition must uncover a smoking-gun item to push the Democratic senators to stand as a group against Roberts. And let me pass on this bad news for progressives: So far, no troubling rumors have emerged for anti-Roberts investigators to chase.

There will be tough questions hurled at Roberts during his nomination hearings: about his skeptical view of privacy rights, about his previous opposition to Roe, about his apparent fondness for executive power, about the ethical issue raised by a meeting he had with Bush Administration officials about his possible appointment to the Supreme Court when he was about to rule on an important case in which the Administration was a party. None of this, though, carries the potential to derail the nomination. But why should anyone worry when Roberts is such a dedicated grammarian?

Messing With Mother Nature

(This post was updated on August 31, 2005)

Like all Americans, I was horrified watching pictures of the destruction wrought by the hurricane. And like others who share the name Katrina, I found it eerie hearing and reading my name all over the news. But when Fox started calling the storm Killer Katrina, I prayed some right-wing idiot wouldn't stoop so low as to link me to this human suffering. But wouldn't you know, the biggest dittohead on the block, Rush Limbaugh, is calling the storm Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel. National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who has never seen a bad-joke bandwagon he could resist jumping on with both feet, blogged, "It would be pretty cool if Fox played to caricature and repeatedly referred to the hurricane as Katrina vanden Heuvel." He went on to imagine the lines, "The destruction from Katrina vanden Heuvel is expected to be massive. The poor and disabled are particularly likely to suffer from the effects of Katrina vanden Heuvel."

This is how they show respect for those who are suffering and dying--with lame quips? At least Limbaugh has the excuse that drug abuse tends to stunt emotional development. What Goldberg's problem is nobody has yet discovered. Natural disasters should be above infantile politics. (George W. Bush's decision to send his father and Bill Clinton to organize aid for the tsunami was one of his few international PR successes since 9/11.) It's so easy to take cheap shots. (Did you hear the one about OxyContin's new tag line? "What a Rush!")

We should be asking serious questions about why the Iraq War has led the White House to divert funds from an urgent project to upgrade levees and pumping stations in Louisiana, and why there aren't enough National Guard troops on hand in what is one of the worst natural disasters in US history. It is not a time for personal attacks. Let's empathize with those who are suffering and think about how we can help them.

Censor Pat Robertson?

It appears that the only Americans who are not embarrassed by their associations with Pat Robertson, the former presidential contender and longtime host of the Christian Broadcasting Network program The 700 Club who lately has taken to recommending that the United States get back in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, are President Bush and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Notably absent from the recriminations regarding Robertson's call for the "taking out" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were statements of condemnation from Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership team.

Despite the fact that the President and his Congressional allies have failed to speak up in any significant way about Robertson's ranting, most responsible players in the national debate have done so. Denunciations have come from the progressive National Council of Churches and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals--the leader of which said of Robertson: "He does not speak for all Christians or evangelicals"--as well as newspaper editorial pages and broadcast commentators on the right and left.

One of the toughest condemnations came from the Chicago Tribune's conservative editorial page, which declared that "Robertson's remarks should be taken for what they are: the ranting of a TV preacher who relies on controversy to keep the coffers full."

The widespread criticism of Robertson's advocacy for assassination has been heartening, as it suggests that most Americans have not degenerated into the indefensible relativism that would have the world's most powerful country offing critics like some sort of global organized-crime syndicate. The outcry is a reminder that the anger generated by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Frank Church (D-Idaho) and his detailing of five attempts by US operatives to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s and '70s was no fluke--and that Robertson is on the wrong side not just of history but of the American mainstream.

At a time when some pundits have suggested that the United States might want to abandon its three-decades-old ban on assassinating presidents and prime ministers, the broad rejection of Robertson's rant has to be seen as a welcome signal. Even if the President and his compatriots do not quite "get it," they have to recognize that Americans would not take kindly to any official effort to sanction state-sponsored "hits."

Now, however, comes the touchier question: Should Robertson be allowed to continue spewing his goofball theories and wrongheaded strategies on national television?

The so-called "Christian broadcaster" initially attempted to lie his way out of a tough corner--he claimed he hadn't brought up assassination, when in fact he had, saying that "if (Chávez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"--did not inspire confidence in him as an credible or honorable individual.

But Robertson finally offered a half-hearted apology in which he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No..." So it appears that the man who sought the 1988 Republican presidential nomination has not lost all grounding in reality, even if his touchstone is more likely self-interest than recognition that he was wrong.

Still, decisions about who should or should not be heard cannot be made on the basis of the presumed moral failings of a particular broadcaster.

As such, it was right that executives with the "ABC Family" cable television channel rejected a call from Media Matters for America for the network to stop airing The 700 Club. Instead, the network quietly added a disclaimer that reads, "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family"--a clear acknowledgment that the Media Matters folks were making an important point about Robertson's faults that stopped short of bumping his program off a popular cable channel.

Of course, if a progressive player in a similar position had called for killing off the troublesome conservative leader of some foreign land, cries for removing that individual from the public square that cable television has become would have been deafening. But progressives ought not embrace the politics of censorship that is so popular with the right these days.

Misguided as his initial statement may have been, Robertson's apology made talk of canceling the long-running television program of so prominent a figure extreme.

Wrong as he so frequently is, Robertson has a right to be heard until the marketplace of ideas finally rejects the damaged goods he so frequently peddles. Indeed, the outcry over Robertson's remarks reminds us that even right-wing broadcasters are sometimes held to account.