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Time to Get Tough, Mayor Mike

Ever wonder why you can still get a manicure for $5 in parts of New York City? Or why waiters here are mostly white, while all the busboys are immigrants? All this is explained in a disturbing report just released by the Brennan Center for Justice, which shows that abusive is becoming the new normal in the urban workplace. The authors of Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, studied 13 industries over three years, and found that violations of wage and hour, health and safety, discrimination and workers' compensation laws, as well as of the right to organize, were commonplace, and generally went unpunished. (The authors are currently studying unregulated work in other cities, and are finding that the problem is a national one, so don't dismiss this as an New York-centric story!)

Consumer patterns play a part; we all expect more convenience, services and goods, even when we don't make much money. Just yesterday, I discovered that I could get a massage for $10.50 even in Manhattan (the Brennan Center reports that massage therapists in this low-priced segment can make as little as $275 a week, and employers routinely fail to protect them from customer harassment). Some businesses -- discount stores, nail salons -- keep prices low to serve poor consumers (whose work may also be largely unregulated) but to do that, must miserably exploit their workers, not even paying minimum wage, much less overtime.

Yet consumer poverty can't explain everything, because high end restaurants are no picnic for workers, either (in fact, they seem to to be worse than fast food and other chain and franchise restaurants). In the city's restaurant industry, illegal discrimination based on race and ethnicity is so common it goes almost unnoticed. So are violations of minimum wage: $5 an hour is about average, and it's not unusual for coat checkers and delivery guys to make as little as $3 an hour.

So what is to be done? Often, we lefty types think that if everyone would just wake up, open their eyes and organize in their communities, all would be well. But actually, a lot of people have been doing just that, especially the immigrant workers most affected by these conditions. The Chinese Staff and Workers' Association has been bringing attention to these problems for years. Another workers' group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has also had organizing successes, forcing many restaurants to pay back wages to workers after public pickets. These groups are great at what they do, but the problems still persist because -- as the title of this report suggests -- there is little enforcement in many of these industries. When rampant lawlessness becomes an industry-wide norm, some businesses say they have to abuse workers in order to compete. Most Americans agree New York City is a nicer place to visit than it used to be, now that you're less likely to be mugged. But it's time to get tough on other kinds of crimes.

SiCKO Is Boffo

In 1971, Edgar Kaiser, the son of the founder of Kaiser Permanente, one of the first big HMOs, went to see John Ehrlichman, a top aide to President Nixon, to lobby the Nixon White House to pass legislation that would expand the market for health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Ehrlichman reported this conversation to Nixon on February 17, 1971. The discussion, which was taped, went like this:

Ehrlichman: I had Edgar Kaiser come in...talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make.

President Nixon: Fine.

The next day, Nixon publicly announced he would be pushing legislation that would provide Americans "the finest health care in the world."

When tapes of the Nixon-Ehrlichman conversation and Nixon's subsequent public statement are played halfway through Michael Moore's new movie SiCKO, it is one of the film's more revealing moments. By this point in the film, Moore has already demonstrated that health insurance companies and HMOs are parasitic villains that routinely deny necessary medical care to make more bucks--even when their money-grubbing leads to the death of patients. Looking for the original sin that led to the present mess, Moore zeroes in on this Nixonian moment, which encapsulates the film's premise that the United States health care system is defined by a fundamental conflict: profit versus care, and--no surprise--profit beats care.

Moore makes this point magnificently in SiCKO, which is the best film in the Moore canon. I say this as one who had a mixed reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11. (See here.) This time around, Moore has crafted a tour de force that his enemies will have a tough time blasting (though they will still try). It's not as tendentious as his earlier works. It posits no conspiracy theories. The film skillfully blends straight comedy, black humor, tragedy, and advocacy. You laugh, you cry--literally. And you get mad.

The film stitches together a string of health care horror stories. Moore opens the movie by looking at two cases involving Americans who don't have health insurance. One fellow who sliced off the tips of two fingers is told at the hospital that he can attach the ring finger for $12,000 and the middle finger for $60,000. He can't afford both. Ever the romantic, Moore reports, this man opts to save his ring finger.

But SiCKO is not about the uninsured. It's about those who have insurance and who have been screwed. Moore began this project by advertising on the Web for tales of health care woe. Within a week, he had received 25,000 emails. That's plenty of raw material. One enterprising father of a child who was going deaf and whose insurance company would only pay for one ear implant wrote his insurance firm and asked if its CEOs would like to appear in Moore's film. The company--whaddayaknow--quickly authorized payment for the other implant.

From this flood of complaints, Moore drew compelling and heartbreaking stories. A woman is denied payment for a major procedure because she neglected to mention on her insurance application that she once had a yeast infection (which was, of course, unrelated to the procedure she needed). A mother loses her 18-month-old daughter because a hospital won't treat her without authorization from her insurance company and her insurer insists she takes the child (during an emergency situation) to an in-network hospital. A woman who was in a car crash is denied payment for an ambulance trip because she did not receive pre-approval for that cost. A man is denied a bone-marrow transplant that could save his life and dies.

Moore interviews health care industry insiders who confirm the worst suspicions. A former employee at a health insurance sales centers cries as she talks about how she was trained to handle prospective clients who might be health risks. "I'm such a bitch on the phone," she says. Doctors who worked for health care companies tell how they were encouraged to deny claims to save their companies money. Medical reviewers for one health insurance company who rendered the most denials received bonuses. Footage from a video surveillance camera shows a Los Angeles hospital dumping an indigent patient on Skid Row. "Who are we?" Moore asks. "Is this what we have become: a nation that dumps its own citizens?"

Moore's meta-message is, It doesn't have to be this way. He visits Canada, England, and France and compares their health care delivery systems to America's. He plays this for loads of yucks. In a British hospital, he goes looking for the place where a patient has to pay his or her bill. He cannot find such a check-out counter. Then--a-ha!--he finds a cashier. But--here comes the punch line--this is where the hospital hands out cash to patients who need a few pounds to cover the cost of their transportation home. Yes, in a British hospital you can leave with more money than you came in with.

What about those put-upon doctors who must work under the heavy yoke of Britain's National Health Service? He interviews a young doctor who drives a new Audi and lives in a posh million-dollar flat. The British system, the doc says, is fine for doctors--unless you want to live in a $3 million flat and own three or four cars. As for drugs, every prescription in England costs the equivalent of ten bucks--no matter what drug or how much of it. An American who blew out his shoulder trying to walk across the famous intersection at Abbey Road on his hands tells Moore that he obtained great hospital care for no money.

Ditto Canada. Ditto France. Doing his I-can't-believe-it act, Moore grills Americans and locals in each country who relate stories of receiving quality care for no payments. A Canadian doctor, with a straight face, says that he has "never told anyone we couldn't put a finger back on" because of a patient's inability to pay. In the land of surrender-monkeys, Moore discovers that government-paid doctors--Sacre bleu!--make house calls, and new parents are visited by federally-paid daycare providers. And get this: a fellow who completes chemo in France gets three months of paid leave to recuperate (on a beach in the south of France, no less). No wonder, the United States ranks 37th in the world when it comes to the health of its citizens, just edging out Slovenia.

Moore whacks the U.S. political system for catering to the needs of the insurance industry not the citizenry, pointing out that the health care lobby pumps millions of dollars into the campaigns of lawmakers. He notes that Senator Hillary Clinton, once the scourge of the health care industry, has become a top recipient of contributions from health care firms. (Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, executive producer of the film and a friend of Hillary Clinton, pressed Moore to cut that part of the film. Moore turned him down. In a recent interview, Weinstein conceded he had asked Moore to delete this portion.)

In the film's climax, Moore gets on a boat in Miami with three 9/11 rescue workers who have been unable to obtain the necessary treatment for ailments apparently caused by their exposure to debris at Ground Zero. His mission: bring them and other health care industry victims to the Guatanamo detention facility in Cuba, where (according to the Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders) the detainees typically receive fine medical treatment. Gitmo, Moore cracks, is "the only place on American soil with free universal health care."

Moore's small flotilla approaches the camp. He takes out a bullhorn and shouts, I have three 9/11 rescue workers who need medical attention. He adds, They just want the kind of treatment al Qaeda is getting. No one in the guard tower responds. A siren goes off. Maybe we better leave, he says. Moore takes the rescue workers and the others to the Havana Hospital where they receive--as do all Cubans there--free quality treatment.

Sure, it's a stunt--but a telling one. One of the rescue workers is living on a monthly disability payment of $1000. Her inhaler costs $120, and she needs at least two a month. She breaks down and cries when she learns she can purchase the same drug in Cuba for five cents. Were she a suspected terrorist in Gitmo, she would get the device for free.

Moore's right. The health care system in the United States is a bad deal for many Americans. (Don't get me started about Oxford, which routinely denies almost every claim I submit for my family.) He glosses over some of the problems overseas (the French social welfare system is under much pressure), but he debunks the hyperbolic scare-'em criticisms hurled at the Canadian and British systems by free-marketeers who defend the U.S. system. As for the charge that a universal health care system would be "socialized medicine," Moore rightfully counters that in the United States there's socialism when it comes to the public well-being; there are public schools, public fire departments, and public libraries. What about public health?

In the film, Canadians, Brits and French laugh at Americans for their cockamamie health care system. Explaining their own systems, they all say that it's a matter of communal security: we take care of each other. In other words, leave no citizen behind. Moore does not explicitly call for a particular set of reforms. But he clearly wants a taxpayer-funded system that cuts out the insurance companies and provides universal care to all.

Health care policy can be mind-numbingly complicated. Try to sort out the differences between Senator Barack Obama's health care plan and Senator John Edwards' proposal. And remember the wire chart the GOP cooked up for Hillary Clinton's proposed reform? But Moore, to his credit, cuts through the surface-level details and gets to the essentials. Why not health care for all? Why allow corporate profit-mongers to decide whether an 18-month-old girl lives or dies? Why is the population of the United States, as wealthy as this nation is, not as healthy as the population of Britain, France, Canada, and 33 other countries? Why settle for a sick system?

Advocates of universal health care (note I say care, not coverage) are hoping SiCKO leads to political change. The California Nurses Association, which supports a single-payer system, is organizing across the country in conjunction with the movie's appearance. It's hard to see a film moving a nation--and, in particular, the politicians who pocket all those health care industry dollars. But Moore has produced a work that maximizes his talents as social critic, humorist, filmmaker, journalist, and advocate. SiCKO is brilliantly funny and sad. It's a dead-on diagnosis. Don't get sick before seeing this film.

*****

JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Cleaning Up Congress & Campaigns

As the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapses and Congressional elections grow more expensive by the millions every cycle, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter believe it's time to fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed and run. Earlier this year they introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful "clean election" laws at the state and local levels. (See The Nation's "Making Elections Fair.") This week the Senate Rules Committee held the first of what reformers hope will be many hearings on Durbin-Specter and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Our Washington intern Matthew Blake attended the hearing and filed this report:

On Wednesday morning, Senators Durbin and Specter were given a chance to make an impassioned plea to their colleagues about why the current financing system was broken--and how their bill would fix it.

"Politicians spend so many hours with special interests and wealthy donors that we don't know what life is like for average working people," Durbin told the committee. "We need to get out of the fundraising business and into the constituent and policy business."

Former Senator Warren Rudman testified in support of Durbin's bill on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of former Senators, including Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

"Increasingly, candidates qualifications are being measured by thesize of their wallets, not the strength of their ideas," Rudman said. Under Durbin-Specter, Senators "will be free to spend their time and energyattending to the nation's business instead of wasting their time onnonstop and demeaning fundraising."

As expected, Senators from both parties quickly attacked the bill and defended a status quo system that re-elects incumbent politicians 98 percent of the time.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who led the fight against McCain-Feingold, assailed the bill as "welfare for politicians"--a common attack line echoed by conservatives. He noted that fewer and fewer Americans (currently 9 percent) choose to check the box contributing to the voluntary presidential public financing system. But McConnell failed to note, as Nick Nyart of Public Campaign pointed out, polls showing that two thirds of Americans support true public financing.

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a possible target of a major corruption inquiry in Alaska, railed against "bloggers who are hired to attack candidates and do nothing more than paid political advertisements---I'm limited in dollars but these attackers aren't."

Committee chair Diane Feinstein worried that, "somebody without their marbles collecting signatures could get $13 million in California with a chance for additional vouchers."

After her opening statement, Durbin quickly took Feinstein aside and explained that she was wrong. The bill would require candidates in his home state of Illinois to collect 11,500 $5 donations to qualify for public funds, hardly a number that "somebody without their marbles" could easily collect.

Feinstein eventually apologized for her digression on signatures and seemed generally supportive of the bill. Proponents of the bill hope that she'll be one of my converts on the road to reform. For Durbin and Specter, the task ahead is to persuade their colleagues that it's wealthy private sector donors, not reformers and bloggers, who are corrupting Washington and perverting Congress and political campaigns.

Obama Wins Straw Poll

Barack Obama won the first annual Take Back America straw poll held this afternoon. Of the over 700 respondents, 29 percent favored Obama, followed by John Edwards in a close second with 26 percent and Hillary Clinton in third with 17 percent. Al Gore won a not-too-shabby 8 percent as a write-in candidate.

For their second choices, Obama voters picked Edwards and vice versa, reflecting a strong anti-Hillary contingent at the conference.

The war in Iraq was the top issue for those surveyed, followed by health care and energy/global warming. The top priorities for those at the conference largely mirrored the American public as a whole said pollster Stan Greenberg, who conducted the survey in conjunction with the Politico.com.

Obama and Edwards clearly helped themselves with strong, lively, moving speeches. The response to Clinton, while still largely favorable, was more mixed, including a smattering of boos on Iraq.

Eighty-three percent of those queried described themselves as liberal or progressive. Time will tell whether their preferences match Democrats in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada.

What to Do About Joe?

Listening to Senator Joseph Lieberman these days, it's difficult to believe that this is the man who was once Al Gore's running mate and not some Pioneer or Ranger or Misadventurer raising money for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The Washington Post chronicled the Senator's recent "Jomentum" as he continues to carry water for the neocons, touting "evidence" to support an attack on Iran last Sunday on Face The Nation (and again on Friday); opposing the vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto "R. for Recall" Gonzales; telling CNN that the surge in Iraq "has worked"; and telling Fox News that "he was more in sync with ‘the leading Republican candidates for the presidential nomination,' especially on ‘Islamist extremist terrorism,' which he called ‘the defining issue of our time.'"

Many citizens in Connecticut aren't taking Lieberman's latest flight to the right lying down. A Connecticut Post editorial – "No More Wars Based on Lies" – read, "In the wake of WMDs, never-ending reports of progress, the insurgency's ‘last throes' and politicized terror alerts, our leaders have lost the country. We don't believe you…. Lieberman and his ilk cannot be allowed to lie us into another war. This madness must be stopped." Letters to the Editor in the same paper were similarly critical: "He is not the senator of the people of Connecticut. He is the senator of his own agenda"…."Every time Lieberman is quoted in news reports here and abroad he is identified as being from the state of Connecticut. Lieberman is bad for Connecticut and bad for our country"…. "…are we seeing the real Sen. Lieberman who would give the president permission to conduct war without the support of the U.S. Congress and the American people?"…. "If the power of recall existed in Connecticut, Lieberman would certainly be removed from office"….

But perhaps no one is more tenacious in his determination to hold Lieberman accountable than Dr. John Orman, author and Professor of Politics at Fairfield University, and Chair – of all things – of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party (CFL). After losing the Democratic primary, Lieberman "created" the CFL Party so that he could appear on the ballot in the general election. Orman, a progressive (former) Democrat who challenged Lieberman for the Senate nomination as an anti-Iraq War candidate in 2005 ("I ran out of money but Ned Lamont arrived to actually save Democrats from Joe," he says), says that he changed his party affiliation to CFL in order to "make political points." Orman won the party Chairmanship in January of this year and there are currently about 20 members.

"We actually encourage our progressive friends to stay in their parties and not join us since we already have official control of Lieberman's fake party," Orman told me. "We have the leadership of the party and we will keep trying to hold Joe accountable because it seems that no one else in Connecticut is willing to do it – except for CFL and bloggers, not mainstream media, Democratic leaders, Republican leaders, etc."

The Connecticut for Lieberman Party has now censured the Senator and called for his resignation. In addition to the Senator's recklessness with regard to Iran, the CFL case against Lieberman rests on three large points: 1) that Lieberman promised Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz that he would form the new third party so that he could run for office, but in fact "he did not join his fake party and his organizing committee failed to form [it] as promised"; 2) that he promised oversight hearings on the Bush Administration's lack of response to Hurricane Katrina and then did a 180 after the election ; and 3) "… most importantly, he lied about his stand on the war in Iraq."

The Connecticut for Lieberman Party cites pre-election statements from August through November, 2006 when Lieberman said he was staying in the race "because I want to help end the war in Iraq"; "No one wants to end the war in Iraq more than I do"; and his campaign characterized the argument that Lieberman was backing the President's "stay the course policy" as "an out and out lie." After winning the election, Orman says, "he wanted to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq and he returned to being hawkish Joe." The Connecticut for Lieberman Party is exploring possible next steps, including no confidence petitions, formal elections complaints, and mock impeachment trials against Lieberman.

Longtime Nation contributor. Lieberman-watcher and Connecticut resident, Bruce Shapiro says, "John [Orman] is showing that you can be creative about politics, not just roll over to pragmatic resignation."

Giving in to resignation is exactly what this country doesn't need right now. Good to see Orman and other Connecticut voters holding Lieberman – who increasingly seems like a loose cannon at best – accountable.

Hillary Booed, Again

Last summer, when she criticized the idea of setting a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, Hillary Clinton was met with a chorus of boos at the annual Take Back America conference.

This year was supposed to be different. Hillary now pledges to end the war on her first day in office. But yet again she experienced boos at Take Back America when she put the blame on the Iraqi government for the mess in Iraq.

"The American military has succeeded," she said midway through her speech. "It is the Iraqi government that has failed." That line has become a standard talking point for politicians of both parties, especially Republicans. But the disingenuousness of the argument didn't sit right at TBA.

The reception caused Hillary to go off-script for a moment. "I like speaking here every year," she said. "I see the signs that say get us out of Iraq. That is what we are trying to do."

That seemed to mollify the crowd. And the rest of the speech, where she ticked off a laundry list of Democratic priorities--like achieving universal healthcare, cleaning up government and strengthening unions--played well.

All in all, she did better compared to last year. But it was no honeymoon, either.

"Heckuva job, Alberto!"

The campaign to impeach Alberto Gonzales -- organized by Democracy for America and filmmaker Robert "Outfoxed" Greenwald's Brave New Films crew under the slogan "President Bush won't fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales... but YOU can!" -- is keeping the heat on the Bush administration's most scandal-plagued appointee. At a time when the drive-by media is playing the president's game by turning its attention away from the constant -- and increasingly dramatic -- revelations of high crimes and misdemeanors on the attorney general's part, this sort of citizen activism becomes all the more essential.

More than 77,000 Americans have signed onto the campaign's online petition, which declares: "We, The Undersigned, urge the House Judiciary Committee to begin the process of impeachment of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in accordance with Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which provides for removal of the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States. We believe the process will prove that Atty. General Gonzales has committed High Crimes and Misdemeanors, including the abuse of power and violation of the public trust, both impeachable offenses."

Greenwald's first video promoting the campaign, a devastating review of the attorney general's lies, went to No. 1 on YouTube. The second video, now up as www.impeachgonzales.org, is an even more powerful indictment.

Take a look:

Assessing specific crimes committed by Gonzales, it features revealing testimony by former Justice Department aides and fired U.S. Attorneys -- including New Mexico's David Iglesias, speaking about "threatening" phone calls he received from top Republican officials -- and blistering questioning of the attorney general's actions by members of the House and Senate. The edgiest challenges to the hapless Bush appointee come from House Judiciary Committee members Maxine Waters, D-California, and Robert Wexler, D-Florida.

Wexler demands of Gonzales: "Did the president select Mr. Iglesias to be put on the termination list? Did the vice president put Mr. Iglesias on the termination list? Who put Mr. Iglesias on the list to be fired? It's a national secret, isn't it?

After scenes of fired U.S. Attorneys talking about "unprecedented" pressure from politicians and phone calls from key aides to Gonzales, Waters tells the attorney general: "There's a pattern here, and it doesn't look good."

Across the screen flash the words:

"Perjury."

"Obstruction."

"Misuse of Power."

This week, Democracy for America activists around the country will begin delivering boxes of petitions to congressional offices nationwide, with the purpose of letting key members of the House and Senate know there is local support for impeachment.

The message from DFA is an important one for Congress. At a time when public disappointment in the legislative branch of the federal government is beginning to rival frustration with the executive branch -- as evidenced by recent polls that show approval ratings for the Congress into the depths occupied by Bush -- it is clear that simply letting the president have his way isn't working. There is no question that, as DFA chair Jim Deans laments, "President Bush continues to back his old Texas crony over the integrity of the Justice Depatrment." But against the president's stonewalling, there is a reality to which Dean correctly draws our attention: "Remember Rumsfeld? Michael Brown? Scooter Libby? The President loves to talk tough. But we've proven that with enough pressure we can make them step down, get fired, or go to jail."

Recalling Bush's "Heckuva job, Brownie" defense of his Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator shortly before Brown was forced out for blowing the response to Hurricane Katrina, Dean is suggesting that the operative phrase of the moment should be, "Heckuva job, Al!"

The bottom line is a vital one for those who are serious about the American experiment: If Alberto Gonzales is allowed to remain in office without an appropriate challenge from Congress -- even if that challenge falls short -- then the contemporary interpretation of the sections of the Constitution dealing with executive-branch accountability will be radically at odds with the intention of the founders. And the prospect that wrongdoers and incompetents in future administrations -- be they Republicans or Democrats -- will be rendered nil.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Obama for the Heart, Edwards for the Head?--UPDATED

One spoke to the heart. One spoke to the head. But both presidential candidates had the same mission: to prevent Senator Hillary Clinton from claiming the soul of their party.

On Tuesday, at the annual Take Back America conference--a three-day gathering in Washington, DC, of thousands of progressive activists--Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, each an aspirant for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, delivered back-to-back speeches that delineated the stark difference in their political courtship styles.

Obama went first. He started with his own story, talking about his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, when he was paid $12,000 a year by church groups to help establish job training and after-school programs in a neighborhood hit hard by a steel plant closing. He described his subsequent entry into local politics and decried a Washington dominated by special interests where "all you see...is another scandal, or a petty argument, or the persistent stubbornness of a President who refuses to end this war in Iraq." Blasting lobbyists for oil and pharmaceutical companies, he exclaimed, "They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we;re here to tell them it's not for sale."

That was a good applause line. The cynical ways of Washington, he said, are of no use to an Iowa couple he met who own a small business and cannot longer afford health care coverage. Pay-to-play politics in Washington, he pointed out, does not help the workers of Newton, Iowa, who lost their jobs when Maytag closed their plant and shipped their jobs overseas; nor does it do much for the still-homeless in New Orleans, the 45 million Americans without health insurance, and the 15 million American children living in poverty. "The time for the can't-do, won't-do, won't-even-try style of politics is over," Obama proclaimed. "It's time to turn the page."

And to turn the page requires..hope. Obama, jokingly referring to himself as a "hope-monger," maintained that hope gets results, and he pointed to his accomplishments as a state senator in Illinois: passing legislation that tightened government ethics rules, that reformed the death penalty, and that expanded health care insurance for children. His big message: hope can cause transformation. Washington can be changed; the nation can be changed. He knows that because his own life marks a transformation in America. "On paper," he said, it is impossible that I am here--a U.S. senator running for president." It was obvious what he meant: a black U.S. senator running for president.

Obama touched the right policy points. He promised to sign into a law a universal health care plan by the end of his first term. He called for more money for education. He vowed to place a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. He voiced support for a minimum wage that is a living wage and for legislation that would help unions organize workers. He urged the shutdown of the Guantanamo detention facility. Noting that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start--"we knew back then that it was dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th; we knew back then that we could find ourselves in an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences"--he highlighted his previous proposal to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

But his appeal was not his policy shopping list. He was promoting himself foremost as an agent of change who can bring about "a new kind of politics." He offered the crowd "a simple truth, a truth I learned all those years ago as an organizer in Chicago...that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it."

And he connected. The crowd was jazzed by the combo of personal story, progressive policy proposals, and message of transformation. For an audience member looking to be inspired--to be wowed--Obama made it easy. I am your man, he proclaimed. He was convincing.

Moments after Obama was done, Edwards took to the stage. He said little about himself. But he opened by stating he had been wrong to vote to grant George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Congress, he insisted, must display strength and conviction and shut down Bush's war. (This was a slight dig at Obama and Clinton, who recently voted against Iraq war funding but who have not been vocal leaders in opposing funding for the war.) But his primary theme extended beyond the war. America, he said, is currently regarded with disdain throughout the world. Instead, it must become a global "force for good."

He went through the litany. The United States has failed the world in its weak response to the genocide of Darfur. The United States has failed the world by not doing enough to spur economic development in the poorer regions of the globe. (He hailed micro-lending programs.) The United States has failed the world by refusing to limit its carbon emissions. But imagine, he said, if the United States would change its energy policies and reduce its oil consumption. Oil prices would fall and Middle Eastern autocrats would have less money in their pockets. And imagine, he said, if the United States and Europe turned toward biofuels. Africa--a continent full of cheap land and cheap labor--could become a source of such energy supplies. "Millions of children," Edwards said, "would be lifted of poverty."

From global warming to biofuels to poverty in Africa. This was a bit Clintonian--as in Bill. Edwards was displaying his policy wonkishness, while offering himself as a man who knows what must be done to lead the United States in the post-Bush world.

Next, he turned to domestic matters. He referred to his antipoverty policy work of recent years. He called for a national housing policy that does not "cluster poor people together." He proposed a "College for Everyone" program that would provide students money for tuition and books if they worked ten hours a week. He promoted his own universal health care proposal, suggesting it was more universal than Obama's. "I will speak for the poor," he said. "I will speak for the uninsured. I will speak for the disenfranchised. This is my life." Paraphrasing Gandhi, he remarked, "You have to be the change you believe in." The audience applauded Edwards, but he had not rocked the house as much as Obama had.

Edwards, who became wealthy as a successful trial attorney, was arguing a case. Obama, the former organizer, had delivered a motivational speech. There was much overlap between the two presentations: America has to treat its less-fortunate citizens better; it must repair its relationship to the rest of the world; and all this depends on you. There were no apparent policy differences. (Only health care experts can argue how the health care plans of these two candidates vary.) Yet each speech was a different experience. Obama spoke as if he was addressing people looking for love. Edwards spoke as if he was before people about to make a hire. Either man, though, will have to win votes of both affection and confidence to best the woman in the lead.

UPDATE: To see how Hillary Clinton tried to out-populist Obama and Edwards at the Take Back America conference, see my report here.

*****

JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

The Gates Inheritance

Think of him as the spymaster who came in from the cold. Well, it wasn't actually so cold out there. After all, Robert Gates was on innumerable corporate boards and the President of Texas A & M University (which, not coincidentally, houses the library, presidential papers, and museum of George H. W. Bush under whom he served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency). But after two dozen years in the CIA and on the National Security Council, after a career which touched (or more than touched) on just about every great foreign policy event in Washington's world from the final days of the Vietnam War and the great Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union to the Central American wars of Ronald Reagan, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Afghan anti-Soviet war, and so much else, he was out of Washington and in hibernation until James Baker's Iraq Study Group called him back. Then, of course, he was picked by George W. Bush as the replacement for the disastrous reign of error of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Gates has, it seems, returned to Washington with a quiet vengeance and evidently with all those skills acquired in his rough-and-tumble years in the intelligence bureaucracy still intact. In practically no time at all, he purged the Defense Department of its leftover neocon civilians, and at every crisis has inserted his own choices in positions of influence -- as secretary of the army, as Centcom commander, and most recently, in place of Rumsfeld's man, Marine General Peter Pace, as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (His emphasis has been on Navy men to replace the discredited Army leadership of the Rumsfeld years.) It's quite a record so far for a man who represented -- until the neocons boarded the ship of state -- more than three decades of the imperial Washington Consensus.

Now, at a moment that couldn't be more crucial, Gates and his "inheritance" get their due, thanks to Roger Morris, a member of the National Security Council Senior Staff under Presidents Johnson and Nixon (he resigned in protest over the invasion of Cambodia) and bestselling author of biographies of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the Clintons. Over the next week, the Tomdispatch.com website will offer not just a portrait of the real Robert Gates, but a full-scale, yet miraculously concise, always surprising, history of American "intelligence" (for which read: global covert action and covert intervention). Morris, who previously offered a striking two-part portrait of Donald Rumsfeld and the Defense Department at this site (The Undertaker's Tally, parts 1 and 2), now offers the Gates legacy, which is really the legacy of mainstream Washington, the globe's imperial capital for this last half-century-plus.

The Gates Inheritance will be posted in three parts this week and, long as it is, it's actually a marvel of compression, packing into a relatively modest space an epic history of mayhem none of us should avoid -- a grim history that led to September 11th, 2001 and now leads us into an unknown, increasingly perilous future. Think of it as a necessary reckoning with disaster.