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"The War Against Christmas"   

Not since Iraqi WMD has there been a bogus news story more loved by the conservative media than the quote-unquote "War against Christmas." So complete is their martyrdom-like passion for this myth that you'd think we lived in a time when Christians were regularly being fed to Coliseum lions. Therefore, while I rather like the holiday myself, as editor of The Nation I feel duty bound to provide their empty, bloviated rhetoric with some ammo. Here are my three battles against Xmas.   

1) Family-photo Christmas cards that married people send to their single, childless friends. Would you send a Thanksgiving card to starving people? A Fourth of July card to the Queen? These are not gifts; they are taunts. And they should be banned.   

2) Corporate America's year-end decisions to reduce health and pension benefits to boost their annual earnings statements. Would Santa threaten to open a factory in Shanghai to bring the elf union to the negotiating table? What could be more bah-humbug than the news that daddy can never afford to retire? This Scrooge-like practice should be banned.   

3) Christmas office parties. Sure, they seem fun, but nothing spells sexual harassment lawsuit like an open bar, mistletoe, and the prospect of spending the holidays alone or with an angry spouse. I think this is one area where Bill O'Reilly and I can agree: Christmas office parties should be banned.   

What's really going on? The guys over at Fox, like O'Reilly and John Gibson (author of the new book, The War On Christmas) are using this battle because they'd like to see America trend theocratic. But despite the hours of attention the rightwing media have devoted to this manufactured crisis, they're unlikely to win. And it's not because they're up against a liberal plot. Gimme a break. It's because they're on the side of intolerance.   

Bush: "I'm Responsible" -- Sort Of -- For War

In the latest of his speeches on the Iraq imbroglio, President Bush did something that is highly unusual for him.

He acknowledged personal responsibility for actions taken by his administration.

No, the president's carefully worded speech did not feature an admission that he and his aides deliberately inflated the supposed "threat" posed by Iraq in order to convince the Congress to authorize the invasion and occupation of that country. But Bush did, on Wednesday, finally state the obvious when he said: "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,"

What was far more remarkable was the next line in the speech, the one where he said: "As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq."

While the president's aides and allies in Congress, along with a sycophantic Washington press corps now claim that there was a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of the war, the fact is that a majority of Democrats in Congress -- amd a handful of brave Republicans -- voted against authorizing the invasion and the American people poured into the streets of communities across the country to oppose Bush's rush to war.

When the president now says that he is "responsible" for the war, he is, of course, trying to appear strong and decisive – in order to claim credit for whatever small "victories" his public relations machine will try to spin out of the Iraqi parliamentary elections and other developments of the moment.

But if Bush really wants to take responsibility for this war, then he must accept it in its totality.

And that totality is an ugly one, indeed.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has been far more consistently right about this war than anyone in the administration, is correct when he says that there is more misery than glory in this military misadventure.

"The President now says he is responsible for the war in Iraq," Kucinich said, after listening to Bush's speech. "I agree with the President. He is responsible. He is responsible for attacking a nation that did not attack us. He is responsible for the 2,151 American troops killed in Iraq. He is responsible for the 15,881 US troops injured in the war. He is responsible for at least 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the start of the war. He is responsible for draining $250 billion from US taxpayers to pay for the war. And he is responsible for the failed reconstruction and for the continued occupation."

The Limits of Power

Sometime in the mid-1990s, after it had become quite clear that Bill Clinton's presidency would deliver rather less than had been hoped, and when it was becoming clear that Newt Gingrich's control of the House would deliver rather more than had been feared, I penned a review of a then-recently published collection of former Sen, Eugene McCarthy's poems. In it, I lamented the lack of poetry in the politics of the moment and suggested that America would be far better served by politicians with a literary bent than by the dim-witted technocrats and self-absorbed plotters to whom power had fallen.

A few weeks later, a modest package with a Virginia postmark arrived at my office. In it was a lovely note from McCarthy, along with a thin volume of his poetry, Other Things and the Aardvark, which had been published in a limited edition of 250 almost three decades earlier. The senator had given copies of the book to friends and supporters of his anti-war campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. In the book's preface, McCrathy noted that "ancient mapmakers used the term 'terra terribilia' to identify what was beyond their knowledge of the earth" and he then paid tribute "to poets who have gone beyond the 'known' and the 'certain' into the 'terra terribilia' in the search for truth."

What did not need to be noted, of course, was that McCarthy had journeyed, in 1968 and over the decades that followed, across the terra terribilia of American politics, earning the enmity even of his onetime supporters and the affection of some who had once dismissed him as a dangerous radical. As I would learn over the years of our acquaintance that began with the arrival of that package, McCarthy was in most senses a very conservative man. He studied religion and the classics, he saw the value of tradition, he embraced standards of duty and responsibility that are so rarely followed today that they do indeed seem radical.

But, at the most fundamental level, all that Eugene McCarthy tried to do during his political lifetime -- with an unfortunate lack of success -- was drag America back to the best of its values.

We spoke about that struggle when I was preparing my book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire, before its publication this year. The premise of the book was that those founders who wanted America to lead by example rather than force -- as "a city upon a hill," to quote John Winthrop -- had imparted a wisdom worthy of recollection in these times. This appealed to McCarthy. Indeed, we found a quotation from a 1967 essay of his that updated the principle rather nicely: "A nation has prestige according to its merits. America's contribution to world civilization must be more than a continous performance demonstration that we can police the planet."

In that essay, which appeared only a few months before he launched his primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson, with the argument that the United States should cease its policing of souytheast Asia and other far destinations, McCarthy wrote, "Many of our problems today are the result of our unwillingness or inability in the past to anticipate what may be the shape of the world 20 years in the future.... There is never a totally painless way to pull back from either unwise, ill-advised, or outdated ideas or commitments. But throughout history, mighty nations have learned the limit of power. There are lessons to be learned from Athens, from Rome, from 16th-Century Spain."

McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign is often remembered as a simplistic initiative, an attempt to turn the anti-draft and anti-war enthusiasms of protesting students into a political force. In fact, it was something far deeper, and far more significant.

In that 1968 run, and to an even greater extent in his 1976 independent campaign for the presidency, McCarthy argued for an American role in the world that owed much more to George Washington, James Madison and John Quincy Adams than it did to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or more recent presidents.

Living in the Virginia countryside, not far from the homes of the founders he favored, McCarthy remained steady across the years in his embrace of a Madisonian vision. He raged as only an American prophet could, about how George Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative allies had, with their advocacy for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, "introduced new concepts about preventing war that are wholly unacceptable in our tradition."

"There are things you do in a war which are preventive, but to just announce it as a general proposition that you're justified in starting a whole war is another question," McCarthy explained in a 2003 interview. "I don't think Bush understands what he's doing."

Weeks after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, McCarthy dismissed the endeavor as "a faith-based war" but he warned that its consequences would be agonizingly real for America. Indeed, he suggested, they was already evidence of those consequences to be found in a loss of liberty about which observers of the American experiment had long warned.

Referring to the Patriot Act and related assaults on domestic liberties, the former senator explained that, "de Tocqueville said you'll find you'll lose the freedoms you're supposed to be defending by setting up your defenses against losing them, and that's what's involved in the stuff that Bush is doing. We haven't lost any of our liberties to the Iraqis yet, but we've had our own liberties curtailed."

It remains true that America has suffered from a lack of poetry in our politics, but it is surely also true that we have suffered from a slow disconnection with the best of our values and traditions. With McCarthy's death, that disconnect grows a little more severe, and America's circumstance a tad more perilous.

John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."

Lying, Dirty Tricksters

"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," says Col. Jack N. Summe, former commander of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group, in Jeff Gerth's masterful, must-read investigation into how the US military is waging a quasi-secret information war in Iraq and the Middle East. Even in the Pentagon, Summe admits to Gerth, "some public affairs professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he says, as "lying, dirty tricksters."

It turns out that the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based subcontractor hired by the Pentagon to plant stories in Iraq's media was no rogue operation. Instead, as Gerth documents, it was just one of many elements in the Bush Administration's vast, extensive and costly propaganda apparatus.

Recent news stories have documented how the Lincoln group received tens of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts to plant paid, boosterish articles in the Iraqi and Arab media. Now we learn that while US troops had defective bulletproof vests, US taxpayer money was being used to help Lincoln pitch pop culture ideas as a way to win hearts and minds in the Middle East.

Did you know that Lincoln proposed that the US government fund a version of the satirical paper "The Onion," and an underground paper to be called "The Voice"? It even had the brilliant plan, according to Gerth's article, of trying "comedies modeled after Cheers and the Three Stooges, with the trio as bumbling wannabe terrorists."

I used to think that if Terry Southern (who brought us Dr. Strangelove) were still alive, he'd have a hard time finding material. Reality is now so radically outrageous. An anti-terrorist comedy based on The Three Stooges?

Rush Does Afghanistan

Another nugget from Gerth's article: Courtesy of our very own US AID, Afghan journalism students were treated to a lecture on journalism by a man who has done about as much as any media personality to distort, divide and debase our media landscape.

In February, according to Gerth, Limbaugh was a guest of AID. When asked by an Afghan journalism student about how he balances justice and truth and objectivity, Limbaugh allegedly replied that the answer was to "report the truth." This from Rush Limbaugh! Need I say more?

Last-Minute Gift Ideas

If you're really organized you've already completed your holiday shopping for the year. If so, you can take a break from this column. But if you're like me and still looking for holiday presents with a progressive slant, keep reading for ideas, many of them courtesy of my crack intern researcher Mike Fox (who also plays a mean fiddle and whose band's CD makes a nice holiday gift too).

First, check out Katha Pollitt's latest Nation column, which upholds her recent tradition of offering annual suggestions for giving to groups and organizations doing unbelievable work with shockingly little money. The efficiency of some of these places would awe a McKinsey consultant, so look them over before you make your final round of charitable contributions this year.

Heifer International also makes it easy to help assist needy families far from home. The Heifer gift catalog allows you to purchase an animal that can be a life-line for families in the developing world. A pig can be bought for $120 (or chip in $10 to help share the cost of one), three rabbits are a bargain at $60 total, a flock of chicks costs only $20, and if you're feeling really generous, a $1,500 donation provides two sheep, four goats, a heifer and two llamas.

It's true that donating to Heifer is wholly apolitical and does nothing to shake the fundamental global divide between rich and poor, which creates so much unnecessary misery around the world. But people need to eat while change is being made and I like to think of outfits like Heifer as offering the opportunity for the world's well-off to voluntarily redistribute a bit of their incomes to those that need the money much more than we do.

On to gifts for friends and family: For a range of socially responsible ideas, see the Center for a New American Dream's Conscious Consumer Marketplace. Things like gift baskets with fair trade coffee and organic chocolate, hand lotion and organic cotton clothing are easy to find, as are big-ticket items like wood furniture, energy-efficient kitchen appliances and gift certificates that can be used on a range of green travel packages. There's even a section of presents for college students looking to "green their dorm room."

Over at the GreenGuide, Karen Mockler offers a good case for why parents with young kids should be wary of anything but strictly non-toxic toys this holiday season and tells us where to go and what to get. (NorthStar Toys, featuring a five-piece wooden train set, was my favorite of the companies she recommends.) And--especially if you have a newborn--check out EcoBaby for organic and safe clothes, toys, bedding, bath products, diapers and much more. They're offering free shipping until December 25.

Another good place to shop online is from an innovative collective in India which started in 1986 with only three women, and now employs 480 artisans in 14 artisan-owned cooperatives in and around Mumbai, India. MarketPlace: Handwork of India is a nonprofit, fair trade organization whose intricate handmade clothing and decorative items provide an alternative to the inequities of conventional trade between developed and developing countries.

The idea is to provide access to global markets for low-income Indian women by using design to bridge the gap between skills and markets. And their clothes are nice! Not everything is for everybody, but there's an impressive range of apparel at reasonable prices. And anything can be returned easily with no charge.

The Co-Op America holiday catalogue offers scores of links to small companies and collectives all offering short-term discounts through Co-Op America's site. You can find everything from calendars and cards to food and wine to amber jewelry and Ms. Magazine. Through the Global Exchange holiday site you can buy cosmetic cases created by the Lisu Tribe of Northern China and Burma, hand-stitched quilts from India, teddy bears from Sri Lanka, rugs from the Philippines and Bush playing cards made in the U.S. of A.

In Grist, the internet's premiere environmental magazine, Sarah van Schagen and Sarah Kraybill break down your gift listees into useful demographics before offering gift ideas. There are eco-jeans for the "Trendy Clotheshorse"; natural pet cleaning supplies for the "Pet Obsessed"; a solar phone charger for your "Hipster" friends; Eco-friendly hair color, eye makeup, and lipstick--all in black, of course--for those "Angsty Teens" on your list; bottles of organic beer and bamboo baseball bats for the "Sports Fanatics"; and for those "Anti-Enviros" you must shop for: biodegradable golf balls and tees. They'll never know the difference.

Finally, my boss will not be pleased if I neglect to plug The Nation's revamped Online Shop. Given the rush on our antiwar buttons and anti-Bush apparel this past year, we've developed a full catalogue of new Nation merchandise. All clothing is union-made, ideal for gifts, and can be purchased online in just a few minutes.

Some Highlights:

Nation Gift Subscriptions.

Alfred W. Bush Shirts and Posters.

Antiwar/Anti-Bush Buttons and Bumper Stickers.

Discounted Books by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Victor Navasky, Molly Ivins and many others.

Happy Holidays!

Eugene McCarthy's Lyrical Politics

Even the poets are restless now. They¡¦re not content to go along with Shelley and be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They want to be acknowledged just a little bit.

Eugene McCarthyMarch, 1968

Eugene McCarthy, who has died more quietly than he lived at the venerable age of 89, will be remembered first and foremost as the courageous Minnesota senator who, when the anti-Vietnam War movement needed a champion in the political arena, took up the fight and deposed one of the most powerful presidents in history.

But of McCarthy, to a greater extent than any contemporary political figure except perhaps former President Jimmy Carter, it can fairly be said that he was much more than maverick senator and an epic presidential contender.

He was, as well, a literary contender -- a poet whose determination to leap from the role of truth teller and angry scold that Percy Bysshe Shelley envisioned when he dubbed poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" into the actual legislature and leadership of a global superpower.

It was the poetic impulse that served to explain the most inspired and the most frustrating aspects of McCarthy's long and often quixotic journey across the American political landscape. Indeed, it was in the thick of the 1968 campaign, when his more prominent foes were declining to debate McCarthy that the senator suggested "a poetry contest" where the battle would could down to "who can develop the best rhymes or the best lines -- if we leave it that open..."

McCarthy did not win the presidency. But he would have won his poetry contest hands down.

And if Walt Whitman celebrated his own life as the great poem of America in its questing 19th century moment, then surely Gene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign was -- in its brief shining moment -- the great poem of the American political experience.

In these darker days of that experience, it is difficult to imagine a lyrical politics.

Politics and poetry are infrequently associated -- to the detriment of both endeavors.

But four decades ago, in a different and more hopeful America, politics and poetry had a brief acquaintance.

In the fall of 1967, millions of Americans had come to the conclusion that the only way to get U.S. troops out of the quagmire that was Vietnam was to depose President Lyndon Johnson. No small maneuver this -- as Johnson had been elected in a 1964 landslide and retained an air of invincibility. But a small band of anti-war Democrats determined to find a U.S. senator brave --or foolish -- enough to take on his own president and party.

They found an unlikely candidate in a senator from Minnesota who was at least as serious about literature as he was about politics. McCarthy was a radical anomaly in American politics even then, a former college professor who began one of the most important speeches of that 1968 campaign - an address to a great rally in the Dane County Coliseum in Madison Wisconsin -- by quoting, from memory, a long section of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."

McCarthy's literary bent tended to put off fellow senators, who sometimes dismissed him as too prone to rumination and independent thinking for the game of politics. But it sat well with the ragtag band of political dreamers who dared believe they could defeat a sitting president, end a foolish war and set right a nation.

Their slogan was: "To begin anew... ."

His supporters were the sort of romantic radicals who maintained that it was not merely possible, but in fact necessary, to turn the wheel of politics and governance further than more restrained activists of their day -- and the days since -- would imagine it might go.

Several years ago, when we were talking about our mutual friend Midge Miller, who played a pivotal role in the Wisconsin primary campaign that would yield the great victory of his crusade, McCarthy explained what distinguished Miller and so many of the others who helped him turn the wheel in 1968.

"Midge had been active before my campaign. She knew politics. That made her invaluable, because most people who 'knew' politics were certain that our campaign was doomed to fail," McCarthy said of the woman who would go on to be a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and to serve many years as a Wisconsin legislator. "She was that rare combination: someone with experience who still believed that great things were possible."

McCarthy and his supporters achieved that which older and "wiser" liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort. In Wisconsin that spring, McCarthy wrote a poem that well captured the ironic, insurgent and, above all, romantic character of that campaign:

Whose foot is on the treadle

That turns the burning stars

Has spun the world half way round

Since last I called

Come down, come down.

|

That stars that in September

Looked through the mournful rain

Now set their sight again

Upon a world half night, half light

|

Men of distant years have said

That much depends on change of seasons

On solstices and equinox

And they have given reasons.

|

I disagree.

Too much turns on inadvertence

On what seems to be

An accident of hand and knee

A chance sunrise

A glance of eyes

Eugene McCarthy and his followers put their feet to the treadle in 1967 and 1968, challenged the men of distance years, betting on the inadvertence of a poet-senator, and changing the course of their party and their nation. For a moment, all too brief, they found a common ground between poetry and politics -- and they inspired a nation, or at least a few of its more adventurous states, to take a leap of faith.

Even if McCarthy sometimes gave up the ground over the years, many of those who were with him in that distant campaign have stood it ever since - calling the rest of us to believe in the prospect that an inspired few can spin the world half way round.

McCarthy always recognized that it was not just he who had the poetry in him.

"We proved something in that 1968 campaign," McCarthy explained to me a few years ago, during that conversation about Midge Miller and the others who drew him into the race and who sustained him through its unimagined triumphs and its bitter disappointments. "We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. (The backers of that 1968 campaign believed), when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics - the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that."

The poet is gone now. But something of him lingers, on a shelf of finer books than we have much right to expect of a politician and in the memory of a campaign more lyrical than all but the luckiest of of us have since experienced.

Feingold to Fight Patriot Act Reauthorization

Four years ago, when U.S. Senator Russ Feingold stood alone in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration's Patriot Act, he was portrayed as a political fringe dweller whose determination to defend basic liberties was out of touch with the realities of the post-9/11 era.

This year, as Feingold leads the fight to block a flawed proposal to reauthorize the Patriot Act, he does so as the voice of a national movement that includes conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents, and residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And he has enough Senate allies to speak seriously about launching a filibuster to block the measure.

What has changed since 2001?

For one thing, almost 400 communities across the United States and seven states -- Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont -- have passed resolutions condemning the assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law contained in the Patriot Act and calling upon Congress to address those concerns before reauthorizing the measure that was approved with minimal debate in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Rarely in American history has a single law drawn such ideologically, politically and geographically diverse opposition.

The message was heard by the Senate which, during this year's reauthorization debate, addressed many of the most serious civil liberties concerns. The bipartisan reauthorization measure, which added basic privacy protections that had been proposed by Feingold and others, was approved unanimously by the Senate.

Unfortunately, the U.S. House, which under the hard-line partisan leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and his lieutenants no longer operates as an independent legislative chamber but instead rubber stamps the requests of the Bush administration, failed to respond to the public outcry. Instead, it produced a reauthorization of the Patriot Act that was actually more draconian in some senses than the original legislation.

That set up what was supposed to be a clash between House and Senate conferees, who were required to reconcile the differing proposals.

But, rather than accept the Senate's balanced bill, the conference committee opted to advance a version of the legislation that, like the House bill, extends most of the Patriot Act permanently while failing to address the flaws that have inspired so much opposition to the law. Of particular concern to civil libertarians is the fact that the conference committee's proposal extends several of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions by authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting allowing the government to seize the records of libraries, hospitals and businesses in "fishing expedition" searches.

"The conference committee had the opportunity to fix many of the provisions of the Patriot Act to which Americans across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition over the last four years," explained U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the leading Congressional critic of the Patriot Act. "Unfortunately, they decided not to listen."

Feingold's objections were echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that seek to defend Bill of Rights protections. "This sham compromise agreement fails to address the primary substantive concern raised by millions of Americans, as well as civil liberties, privacy and business organizations and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers," argued Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which has played a critical role in organizing opposition to the Patriot Act nationwide, is particularly worried by the decision of the conference committee to disregard language that would have protected against the abusive use of so-called "National Security Letters" -- the documents used to federal agents to demand the records of libraries and businesses. Civil libertarians wants Congress to set a baseline standard requiring that there be a connection between records sought and a suspected terrorist or foreign agent.

Without such protections, Feingold says, the conference committee's proposal lacks "adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms."

As such, the Wisconsin Democrat says, "I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report." The filibuster threat is a significant one, as the act will expire if it is not reauthorized by the end of the year.

Unlike in 2001, Feingold has Senate allies. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators joined him in signing a letter that declared, "We believe that this conference report will not be able to get through the Senate, while the Senate bill would easily pass the House if its leadership would bring it to a vote. We call on our House colleagues to reject this conference report, and to take up and pass the Senate compromise bill. We still can - and must - make sure that our laws give law enforcement agents the tools they need while providing safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans."

That's the balance that Feingold sought to strike in 2001. He's doing so again in 2005. The difference is that, this time, Feingold will not have to stand alone.

Ford's Fate

When it comes to winning back the Senate, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee is beginning to look like the Democrats' make-or-break candidate--and that might not be such a good thing.

Ford is running surprisingly well in his race to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in traditionally conservative Tennessee. In August, he ran virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination. And now, a recent poll has Ford just one point behind his Republican rival, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

If he wins in November, the 36-year-old Ford would become the first African-American senator from the South since reconstruction. Ever since his keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic convention, Ford has been seen as a rising star in the party, yet his very conservative views on a variety of issues make him seem more like the next Joe Lieberman than a beacon of light in future of the party.

During his nearly decade-long career in Congress, Ford has supported constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag-burning. He was an outspoken opponent of a filibuster attempt to prevent Samuel Alito's appointment to the Supreme Court. He has supported the placement of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, prayer in schools and an end to handgun bans.

Most disappointing was his vote in favor for the war in Iraq, when so many of his colleagues in the House had the wisdom not to.

Ford is certainly a charismatic congressman. Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council president Jerry Lee has called him, "the most exciting candidate I've seen since John F. Kennedy" and he's even appeared in People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue . Yet for some time now, the American public, and progressives especially, have been crying out for more than a pretty face. They want a real change in leadership, but in a Senate where Rep. Ford could ostensibly be the deciding vote on a host of issues, change might come much slower than they'd hoped.

The Best Secret Tellers in Washington

Washington is a city of secrets. Some old; some new. There are few institutions devoted to the mission of prying these secrets from the filing cabinets of assorted government agencies. Some media outfits periodically pick the locks and obtain scoops. Journalists occasionally receive well- or not-so-well-intentioned leaks about past or present official misdeeds. Once in a while--less so these days--a congressional investigation or a commission unearths long-buried truths about government-gone-bad. But when it comes to consistently forcing important secrets out of the US government no journalist or investigator rivals the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit based at George Washington University.

Why gush about it now? Today the Archive is celebrating its 20th anniversary. In 1985 journalists Scott Armstrong and Raymond Bonner. Representative Jim Moody, Ruth Chojnacki, a congressional aide, Morton Halperin, the head of the ACLU office in Washington, and Stephen Paschke, the chief financial officer of the Fund for Peace, founded the organization. At first it was, in a way, a dumping ground for journalists and scholars who had amassed large files on subjects related to national security and foreign policy. Unlike those reporters and scholars who are overly possessive of their records, these folks wanted to make their material available to others. (And who needs all those boxes in their basements?) But the National Security Archive grew into more than a depository. It became a force for openness--first in the United States, then throughout the world. Its researchers relentlessly filed Freedom of Information Act requests--and haggled with various government agencies--to obtain crucial records of historic and contemporary significance. In 1990, a lawsuit it filed jointly with Public Citizen won the release of Oliver North's Iran-contra notebooks. The Archive pressured the US government to release tens of thousands of pages on the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. It forced Henry Kissinger to relinquish control of 33,000 pages of public records he walked off with when he left the government. And as democracy spread to Eastern Europe and Russia (well, kind of) in the 1990s, the National Security Archive worked with the new governments in these countries to modernize their archives and to bring transparency to their history.

Before gushing further, let me issue this Interest Declared: When writing my book on the CIA, Blond Ghost, in the early 1990s, the Archive was quite helpful. It had collected reams of material on the CIA campaign against Cuba of the early 1960s that was rather important for my project. And I fondly (in a perverse way) recall spending weeks at the Archive poring over a massive computer printout of all the Freedom of Information Act requests the CIA had fulfilled in previous years. The Archive had pressured the CIA to release this information, and the CIA, in response, handed it a printout that listed the data in random order. Not by date. Not by subject. Not by name of requester. In other words, the CIA had organized the information in the least usable form. We figured that the CIA must have programmed a computer to achieve this, for, certainly, the CIA did not maintain its records in such a haphazard fashion. (At least, we hoped so.) The National Security Archive pressed the CIA to turn over the data in an electronic version that could be searchable. (Want to know what documents related to Vietnam the CIA had released? Type in "Vietnam" and hit "Enter.") But the CIA had said no. That meant I had to look at this printout, which covered thousands of requests, line by line. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but my eyes took a pounding. Subsequently--too late for me--the Archive succeeded in forcing the CIA to hand over this information on computer tapes.

Further Interest Declared: several longtime friends of mine work at the Archive, including Peter Kornbluh, Kate Doyle, and Tom Blanton, the director.

Anyone who gives a damn about honesty in history and openness in government ought to cheer the Archive. To celebrate its birthday, the organization has gathered statistics about its accomplishments. It has filed 32,000 FOIA and declassification requests with over 200 offices and agencies of the US government; it has obtained the release of 7 million pages of once-secret documents; its staff and fellows have written 46 books; it has participated in 39 major lawsuits, one of which resulted in the preservation of 40 million emails from the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations. And the Archive this week put out a greatest hits list of 20 big-secret government records it has obtained in the past two decades. It's an impressive list that includes

* Hundreds of photos of flag-draped coffins containing the remains of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which the Pentagon fought to keep secret.

* The January 25, 2001 memo that terrorism czar Richard Clarke sent to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, warning that top Bush administration officials needed to immediately come up with a plan for dealing with al Qaeda.

* The briefing notes for Donald Rumsfeld's 1984 meeting with Saddam Hussein, when Rumsfeld, acting as an envoy for the Reagan administration, was to tell Saddam that the Reagan administration's public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons would not interfere with Reagan's effort to forge a closer relationship with Saddam.

* An August 6, 1986 entry from Oliver North's notebook that indicated North had met with then-Vice President George Bush in the midst of the Iran-contra affair.

* The log book of a US Navy destroyer that revealed that on October 27, 1962--in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis--this ship dropped depth charges off the Cuban coast and almost hit the hull of a Soviet submarine carrying a nuclear warhead. The crew of the sub, believing war was at hand, considered firing the nuclear weapon but did not.

* Documents from CIA and FBI files that showed that Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban militant who has sought US asylum, was at two planning meetings for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people.

* Guatemalan army intelligence documents and US intelligence documents that indicated that the CIA was assisting the Guatemalan military in the 1980s as that military was killing thousands of civilians.

* Documents that revealed that Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state in 1976, supported the Argentine military dictatorship's crackdown of dissent that led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

* The CIA inspector general's scathing review of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, which was kept secret for nearly four decades and which blasted CIA secret operations as "ludicrous or tragic or both."

* A 1967 CIA memo that revealed that the CIA had tried to implant listening devices in cats and train them to approach targets. The memo noted that the "work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit on the personnel who guided it," but that "the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation forces us to conclude that for our...purposes, it would not be practical." The first wired and trained cat had been released near a park and ordered to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a bench. On its way to the target, the cat was run over by a taxi.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the latest in the CIA leak scandal, Condi and torture, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, and other in-the-news matters.

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Without the National Security Archive much of the secret history of the United States--and other nations--would remain a secret. Is this a puff piece? Certainly. There is no better institution in Washington than the Archive. The work it does is actually something a government could and should do. It's not too hard to imagine a federal openness advocate who would muscle individual federal agencies to release information about past and present activities. But governments tend to be rather reluctant to reveal to the public--the people they ostensibly serve--inconvenient and troubling secrets on their own. Consequently, a bunch of smart people dedicated to the public interest have been gainfully employed for two decades. The public here and abroad knows more about key historical episodes than it would otherwise thanks to the their toils. It is a pity there is such a critical need for the National Security Archive; it is a blessing for journalists, historians and citizens that the Archive exists.