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A New Populist on the Block

South Dakota has a proud populist tradition. In the late 19th-century, the state's farmers faced plummeting wheat prices and mounting piles of debt at the hands of large Eastern banks. But they responded by forming agrarian alliances to prop up prices, pooling their resources for bulk purchasing and becoming politically active in the People's Party--AKA, the populists.

Now more than a century later, there is a new populist on the block--and her name is Stephanie Herseth. A 33-year-old lawyer, teacher and South Dakota native, Herseth is running in the June 1 special election to fill former Congressman (and convicted felon) Bill Janklow's seat. (She came very close to beating him in 2000.) Raised on her family's fourth-generation farm and ranch 35 miles from Aberdeen, Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions.

Her grandfather served as South Dakota's governor from 1959-1961. But it was her grandmother who was the first one to run for public office. As superintendent of schools in Brown County in the 1930s, she helped put her nieces through college, and was elected Secretary of State in the 1970s after her husband died. Herseth's father also spent 20 years in the state legislature.

Herseth, however, might be the most skilled politician in her illustrious clan. Smart and poised, she exudes hope about the state's future and refuses to sling mud at her GOP opponents--which is part of the reason why, according to last week's Zogby Poll, Herseth enjoys a 16-point lead over State Senator http://legis.state.sd.us/sessions/2002/mbrdt149.htm ">Larry Diedrich, her main Republican rival.

The stakes are extraordinarily high. Herseth is pro-choice, and South Dakota, which has never elected a woman to Congress, needs her voice on this issue now more than ever. Last February, South Dakota's rightwing legislature passed a draconian bill banning virtually all abortion procedures even in cases of rape and incest. The governor finally vetoed the bill on technical grounds but the issue remains a controversial flashpoint in the state. One newspaper reporter even described Herseth as "untested, unmarried, no children, for abortion." Emily's List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have responded by raising contributions and visibility for Herseth's campaign.

A skillful tactician, Herseth seems to be pushing the right buttons. In 2002, she ran a campaign against Janklow in which she encouraged South Dakota's youth to live and work in the state. After a narrow defeat, Herseth, true to her word, remained in South Dakota. She launched the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, which promotes agrarian prosperity and educates youth in rural communities. She taught politics at South Dakota's colleges, too.

Most importantly, Herseth has broad appeal in rural South Dakota. In 2002, she criticized agribusiness monopolies for damaging South Dakota's economy. Today, she supports fair trade, defends family farmers and advocates for affordable health care for rural America. She fights for military families on issues like veterans' benefits and better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview for the Emily's List newsletter, Herseth also promised to reach out to "Native American voters and increase turnout among younger women. They will be a core of my support in June and November."

As John Nichols noted in an November 4, 2002 Nation piece, Herseth "will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive." And a Herseth victory this June 1st will demonstrate that progressives can win rural districts--and in Tom Daschle's state, where he faces a fierce re-election battle against Rep. John Thune this November.

When Herseth defeats Larry Diedrich this June, she will weaken Tom DeLay's iron grip on the anti-women, Republican-run House of Representatives. If you want to kindle a populist prairie fire, go to www.HersethforCongress.org and make a donation today.

Imperial President

In St. Louis to toss out the ceremonial first pitch in Monday's season-opening baseball game between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers, George w. Bush was steered by an aide toward an Associated Press reporter who had a question about the Iraq imbroglio.

"So who's the AP person?" demanded Bush.

"I am," the reporter replied.

"You are?" grumbled Bush. "Well, ask it."

"Sir, uh, in regard to...," the reporter began.

Bush stopped the journalist at mid-sentence. In a scolding voice, he demanded to know: "Who're you talking to?"

The AP quickly corrected himself. "Mr. President," he said.

Bush--who in 2002 acknowledged that "If this was a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator"--was satisfied that he had been properly addressed. He then allowed the reporter to continue. However, his reply to the question was typically short and perfunctory.

Perhaps, the reporter would have gotten a better answer if he had just said, "Your Highness..."

Bush-Free Zone

I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that this is an election year full of passion, activism and real historical importance.

I've written in this space about the powerful surge of internet "e-activism," which has given ordinary people extraordinary tools to challenge big money and big media. And I've welcomed creative groups like Billionaires for Bush, the Radical Cheerleaders and the Babes Against Bush, which are bringing humor, satire and fun to the struggle to (re)defeat the president.

Now there's a recently launched new group which is giving the term "Bush-Free Zone" a whole new meaning. For a peek at what I mean, check out WomenAgainstBush.org. It's the website of a new political action committee, Running in Heels, started by a twenty-something trade lawyer in Washington, DC.

The site asks people to, "Join Us in Brunching Against Bush, Wine Against Bush and for the really outrageous--Wax Away Bush!" With that rallying cry in mind, the group kicked off its first fundraiser last month by distributing certificates for free bikini waxes and panties with slogans. Two of my favorites--"Bush-Free Zone" and "Kiss Bush Goodbye."

Lott Congratulates Vote Fraud

I was in Moscow last month the day http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20000417&s=kvh "> Vladimir Putin was reelected in whatever is the opposite of a cliffhanger of an election. His victory was as predictable as it was overwhelming. Months of media suppression and harassment of opposition candidates helped the former KGB officer (plucked from obscurity by Boris Yeltsin in 1999) secure 71 percent of the vote. And documented instances of vote fraud and coercion ensured that turnout crossed the fifty percent threshold needed to avoid a new election.

One of my favorite stories involved patients in Moscow's Psychiatric Clinic No. 4 receiving ballots pre-marked for Putin. (This led one of Putin's opponents to quip, "By 2008, the whole country will be voting according to the same principle as in Psychiatric Hospital No. 4.") Then there were the students at an aerospace university who faced being thrown out of their dorms if they didn't cast a ballot. Or the officers in a local military unit who were cabled by the Defense Ministry with instructions to report when they and their family members had voted.

Most Western commentators--and independent Russian groups monitoring the election--condemned the Kremlin's heavy-handed tactics. But they didn't seem to bother leading GOP apparatchik Trent Lott. Arriving in Moscow just a few days after Putin's reelection, Lott told the Russian news service Novosti, "I would like to congratulate Mr. Putin and the delegates of the State Duma with their victory. I would like to learn how we could reach the same level of support for Republicans and President Bush for the elections in our country."

Lying About Rwanda's Genocide

As a fellow who wrote a book contending that the current president is a serial prevaricator, I often am asked by conservative critics: So did you ever call Bill Clinton a liar? My reply: Yes; I am a nonpartisan accuser. But I'm not talking about the obvious lies. Back in those days, I did say that Clinton's lies about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky were wrong and serious--but not worth impeachment. (And now they seem puny when compared with the assortment of untrue statements George W. Bush deployed to grease the way to war.) But what was more outrageous was a lie Clinton told about one of the greatest failures of his presidency: his inaction regarding the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Why revisit this today? Two reasons. First, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the start of that horrific event, in which half a million people, mainly of the Tutsi minority, were slaughtered over three months by Hutu extremists, in one of the most time-efficient massacres of the 20th Century. Second, the National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research institute that collects and analyzes government records, recently released a report that provides more evidence for the case that Clinton lied to the people of Rwanda.

That lie came four years after the genocide. During a 1998 presidential tour of Africa, Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, and issued an apology. Sort of. Speaking of those nightmarish months in the spring of 1994, he said, "All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." He acknowledged that the United States and the international community had not moved quickly enough in response to the horrors under way. To emphasize his sorrow, he said, "Never again."

Clinton seemed to be taking responsibility, but actually he was making an excuse. He had inadequately reacted to the genocide, he said, because he had not really known what had been happening in Rwanda. That was a disingenuous cop-out.

The National Security Archive report, based on documents the group obtained, notes:

"Throughout the crisis, considerable U.S. resources--diplomatic, intelligence and military--and sizable bureaucracies of the U.S. government were trained on Rwanda. This system collected and analyzed information and sent it up to decision-makers so that all options could be properly considered and 'on the table.' Officials, particularly at the middle levels, sometimes met twice daily, drafting demarches, preparing press statements, meeting or speaking with foreign counterparts and other interlocutors, and briefing higher-ups. Indeed, the story of Rwanda for the U.S. is that officials knew so much, but still decided against taking action or leading other nations to prevent or stop the genocide. Despite Rwanda's low ranking in importance to U.S. interests, Clinton administration officials had tremendous capacity to be informed--and were informed--about the slaughter there."

The report, written by William Ferroggiaro, documents the pre-genocide warnings and concurrent reports of the massacre that Clinton's administration received. The National Security Archive, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested copies of the Presidential Daily Briefs for this period. The PDB is a highly classified document written for the president. (The current Bush administration refused to let the House and Senate intelligence committees even look at an August 6, 2001, PDB that mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking when the committees were conducting their 9/11 investigation.) These PDBs would show precisely what Clinton read each day about Rwanda. But the Archive's request for the PDBs was denied. It did, however, obtain copies of the National Intelligence Daily, which is also classified but has a wider circulation. NIDs are distributed to several hundred government policymakers six days a week. It is a fair assumption that they often reflect what is contained in the PDBs. And the NIDs gathered by the Archive indicate that the administration was aware a genocide was occurring in Rwanda. An April 23 NID referred to a negotiation "effort to stop the genocide, which relief workers say is spreading south." The April 26 NID item on Rwanda, entitled "Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding," reported that the "Red Cross estimates that 100,000 to 500,000 people, mostly Tutsi, have been killed in the ethnic bloodletting" and that "eyewitness accounts from areas where nearly all Tutsi residents were killed support the higher estimate."

But Clinton did not have to depend on the top-secret PDBs or NIDs to learn that there was a genocide transpiring in Rwanda. As the Archive notes, "beginning April 8th, the massacres in Rwanda were reported on the front pages of major newspapers and on radio and television broadcasts almost daily, including the major papers read by U.S. officials and policy elites." And at that time human rights activists in Washington--who had close relationships with national security adviser Tony Lake and staffmembers of Clinton's national security council--were pounding on the doors of the White House demanding action and suggesting options. The United States could have provided logistical support to the small U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. It could have deployed jamming devices to block the radio transmissions of the Hutu leaders coordinating the slaughter. It could have pressured France and Belgium to use their influence with the Hutus. It could have merely spoken out.

In the first weeks of this tragedy, human rights advocates urged Clinton to issue a clear and forceful declaration that a genocide was happening and that the killers could expect to be tracked down and tried for crimes against humanity. But the Clinton administration dithered for weeks over whether to use the G-word, for doing so would have compelled the administration, under international law, to take direct steps to stop the killings. But after the disaster in Somalia, Clinton had no stomach for becoming involved in another messy conflict in Africa. In public, he had more to say about the caning of a young American in Singapore than the murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.

As the National Security Archive report points out, Clinton was being pressed by prominent individuals to take action. On April 21, Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya, whom Clinton had welcomed to the White House five months earlier, implored him to act against the "campaign" of "genocide against the Tutsis." She argued that the United States had "a moral and legal treaty obligation to 'suppress and prevent' genocide." Members of Congress lobbied Clinton as well. On May 13, Senators Paul Simon and James Jeffords sent a letter to Clinton criticizing his lack of "leadership" and declaring "swift and sound decision-making is needed." They urged Clinton to impose sanctions, establish an arms embargo, and boost the U.N. forces in Rwanda and allow them to intervene more directly. "An end to the slaughter is not possible without this action," they wrote.

The National Security Archive report notes, "Although stated policy was that Rwanda did not affect traditional vital or national interests before or even during the genocide, considerable resources were nevertheless available and employed to ensure that policymakers had real-time information for any decision they would make. In sum, the routine--let alone crisis--performance of diplomats, intelligence officers and systems, and military and defense personnel yielded enough information for policy recommendations and decisions. That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda."

Four years after the killings, Clinton told the Rwandans (and the world) that he had not tried to stop the genocide because he had not known what was truly occurring. Ignorance was not the reason. It had been a political decision. Clinton was fibbing to the survivors of genocide. And this deceptive remark sparked practically no outrage. Today, ten years after the Rwanda massacre, the inaction of the United States and the world community should not be forgotten, nor should Clinton's untruthful excuse.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

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Teresa Heinz Was Right

At a 1993 press conference, when Teresa Heinz-Kerry declined to run for her late husband's Pennsylvania Senate seat, she explained, "the best ideas for change unfortunately no longer come from political campaigns." She added: "Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."

Forgoing a Senate race, Heinz-Kerry instead took the reins of the Howard Heinz Endowment and became a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Under her leadership, the foundations has supported smart environmental and women's programs.

Heinz-Kerry's statement was prophetic. Now more than at any time in recent memory, too many politicians--and their campaigns--lack the courage to debate, let alone adopt, big ideas in this country. As a result, America has a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. And, as Heinz-Kerry argued, we've lost sight of big ambitions.

Polls, 30-second attack ads and partisan sniping often drown out serious policy debates. The mainstream media shoulders a lot of the blame as well. Too often, the press, enthralled with scandals, fails to cover ideas and issues. The media is instead obsessed with the politics of style--the candidates' hair, clothes, favorite sports, vacation plans, and, of course, wives. After campaign debates, reporters descend on so-called Spin Alleys, where consultants dissemble, and journalists lap up the PR offensives.

In a December New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem when he urged reporters to reject "political histrionics" and focus instead on the candidates' records and policies. So far, too few reporters have failed to listen to him.

Finally, there's the Internet, which fueled Howard Dean's rise and empowers progressives in exciting ways. The web is a bubbling stew of big ideas and low gossip, and the political blogs I've started reading (Micah Sifry at Iraqwarreader.com, for example) actually have a fairly meaty conversation going. Yet many of the most popular sites, like Drudge or Wonkette or Gawker, attract eyeballs by plying gossip above all, eschewing serious debates about politics and policy.

One big (and under-reported) story is that America's communities are laboratories for progressive reform. Over the last few years, The Nation's series "What Works" has called attention to creative programs that have built affordable housing and reduced urban poverty; neighborhood initiatives that attacked inner-city blight; and a living wage movement that improved the lives of thousands of workers. We've also looked at victories of clean money and www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20010611&s=sifry20010529"> clean elections in Maine and Arizona and reported on Maine's passage of a universal health care bill, which is putting pressure on other states to follow suit.

In countless cases, the unmet social needs of the American people are more extreme than in other rich industrialized nations. But, if you listen to our candidates, read our papers or watch our television, you wouldn't hear a lot about the tragically high rates of child poverty; the desperation of our inner cities; the absence of effective mass transit; or the lack of decent health care and housing for millions.

In 2004, the election could be a testing ground in which to clarify the stark choices facing this country. But where is the millennial equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's Fair Deal, and Johnson's Great Society? Don't these times cry out for an electoral system that nurtures big debates over large issues?

'Conservatives for Nader. Not a Large Group.'

Ralph Nader continues to fantasize that his candidacy will succeed in peeling as many Republican and Independent votes away from Bush as progressive votes from Kerry. But, as comic Jon Stewart quips: "Conservatives for Nader. Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.'"

The problem is that, as Micah Sifry writes in his smart weblog, all the polls show Nader drawing anywhere between 3 and 7 percent of the vote, with the internals skewing heavily to the left. Sure, some people who will vote for Nader would otherwise not vote at all. But it's clear that most of Nader's support--whether he tops his 2000 showing of 2.7 percent or not--will come from many who would otherwise vote for John Kerry.

This does not deter Nader. In a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times and in a live on-air appearance on the brand new liberal radio network Air America, he seemed to relish tweaking friends and former allies. He even hung up the phone in a live on-air interview with one of Air America's hottest radio hosts, Randi Rhodes, who was challenging him about why he felt the need to campaign in swing states, among other key issues. The click came after the two engaged in a bitter discussion about progressive values and political strategy in this election and beyond.

Let's hope Nader has a more productive dialogue with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry when they meet sometime this month in a meeting requested by Nader.

As for my position on Nader's candidacy, check out The Nation's " Open Letter" from the February 16, 2004 issue and our editorial from March 15.

The Burden of Conscience

Since the US invaded Iraq last year, hundreds of American soldiers have broken the law and abandoned their units on the battlefield. And, as Dan Frosch writes in Alternet, the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of advocacy groups that offer legal advice to American troops, has received thousands of calls from active soldiers inquiring about conscientious objector status since the war began.

Tonight at 8:00pm, 60 Minutes II will air a segment on Camilo Mejia, a 28-year-old Florida National Guard Staff Sergeant who refused to return to Iraq in October, after being home on furlough. Mejia has taken a public stand of conscience against what he calls an illegal and immoral war, and has filed an application for conscientious objector status.

Despite this application, Mejia has been charged by the Army with desertion and is currently being held at Ft. Stewart in Georgia, where he is awaiting trial by a Special Court Martial, which will likely result in a one year prison sentence and a Bad Conduct Discharge. (For more about Mejia's decision, click here to read Christian Parenti's recent Nation Online article on his case.)

Mejia's mother, Maritza Castillo, is asking concerned activists to write two letters: one to Mejia himself expressing your support for his stand and another to the Commanding General asking that the Army accept Mejia's conscientious objection application, which would result in Mejia's release.

Mejia's Address:Ssg. Mejia CamiloA Company, USAG MED-HOLD, 865Hase RoadFt. Stewart, GA 31315.

The Commanding General's address:Major General William G. Webster, Jr.Commanding General, Fort Stewart42 Wayne PlaceFt Stewart, GA 31314.

Please take the opportunity to help this brave soldier and his courageous mother. And call the GI Rights Hotline at 1-800-394-9544 or click here for info on conscientious objector status.

Frists of Fury

Poor Bill Frist, he can't be proud of what he has become. He ran for the Senate with a simple mission: prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's $800-million stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.

Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- good hair, good suit, bad politics -- until former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.

With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.

Then the Bush administration got in trouble. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that the Bush administration really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors.

The administration had few credible defenders left. They couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.

The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist was ready to mumble.

Last week, Frist took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."

That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service has been all about profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist has pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who are lack access to health care. As Mother Jones explained some years ago, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."

Frist has delivered well for his family. That $800-million stake in HCA that his father, and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, has moved up steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."

So Bill Frist certainly knows a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.

Of course, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit Clark. The problem was that Clarke has already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."

Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.

Before last week, there was talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remains firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After last week, however, even Republican loyalists had to be wondering whether Frist is good for anything other than taking care of the family business.