The Nation

Libby Trial: What Scooter Didn't Do

Scooter Libby didn't tell Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby didn't tell Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that she was employed at the CIA. Libby didn't tell New York Times reporter David Sanger the envoy's wife was CIA. Libby didn't tell Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post anything about her. And he said nothing to rightwing columnist Robert Novak about the woman.

That's how the defense in the perjury trial of I. Lewis" Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, began its case on Monday. The aim was to show that Libby was not willy-nilly spreading information to reporters about Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment in the weeks before she was outed as a CIA officer by Novak's July 14, 2003 column. Libby stands accused of having lied to a grand jury and the FBI when he told both that he had not passed official information regarding Valerie Wilson to reporter Judith Miller, then of The New York Times (during conversations on June 23, July 8 and July 12, 2003) and correspondent Matt Cooper, then of Time (during a phone call on July 12, 2003). With the testimony of the journalists who appeared on Monday, Libby's lawyers will be able to argue to the jurors that if Libby was purposefully leaking information on Valerie Wilson, he sure let plenty of opportunities pass him by.

The defense also elicited testimony from two reporters who each said he had been told about Wilson's wife (before the Novak leak) by an administration official other than Libby. Pincus testified that on July 12 Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, said to him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on a boondoggle. (Pincus had previously disclosed that an administration source made such a remark to him without identifying the source.) And Woodward testified that on June 13 he met with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had been involved with the trip Joseph Wilson had taken to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there. (The day before Woodward saw Armitage, Pincus had reported on the trip in the Post without naming Wilson).

Libby's lawyers merged these two key points--Libby had not leaked to these reporters while other officials had leaked--and composed a timeline in front of the jury that listed Libby's conversations with Pincus, Woodward, Sanger, Kessler, and Novak and Armitage's conversations with Woodward and Novak and Fleischer's with Pincus. The Libby conversations were noted in black ink. (Black meant no mention of WIlson's wife). The other three were in red. (Red meant Wilson's wife was mentioned.) Voila! The only conversations on the chart involving Valerie Wilson were those between reporters and Bush administration officials besides Libby.

Libby is in legal trouble because in 2003 and 2004 he told the FBI and the grand jury investigating the CIA leak that when he discussed Wilson's wife with Cooper and Miller, he was merely passing along gossip he had picked up from Meet the Press host Tim Russert--not official information gathered from government sources. Fitzgerald has presented witnesses who have testified that Libby did seek and obtain classified information on Valerie Wilson's CIA employment from Cheney and CIA and State Department officials and then leaked it to Miller and Cooper.

During the prosecution's case, Libby's attorneys attempted to impeach the credibility of these witnesses--and suggested several conspiracy theories that they have yet to support with evidence. Now that it's their turn, Libby's lawyers began with a contextual argument: look at all the times he didn't leak. But in Washington not every leak is an equal opportunity leak handed out to all comers. A leak often can be selective. During his grand jury testimony--which was played for the trial jurors--Libby explained how he had been tasked by Cheney (with George W. Bush's approval) to leak selectively to Miller excerpts from the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (which the White House believed supported its case for war). Libby also told the grand jurors how he worked with then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to leak portions of the NIE to The Wall Street Journal--not to every reporter with whom he would come into contact.

Libby's I-didn't-leak-to-these-other-reporters argument has additional problems. When he didn't leak to Pincus, Woodward, and Sanger, the Wilson matter was not yet a firestorm. And some of these conversations did not concern the Wilson affair. Sanger testified that he had contacted Libby regarding Libby's role in Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, during which Powell laid out a case for war based on false information. Is it fair to say your discussion with Libby did not involve allegations about Joseph Wilson? Fitzgerald asked Sanger. "That's fair to say," the reporter replied. And during the entire Sanger-Libby interview, Fitzgerald noted, Cathie Martin, Cheyenne's top press aide, was in the room. The prosecutor was suggesting it would be unlikely for Libby to leak classified information about Valerie Wilson to a reporter chasing another story while a press aide was watching. And Glenn Kessler of the Post testified that his phone conversation with Libby came about because he was helping a colleague at the paper gather answers to questions related to postwar planning. Kessler's phone call with Libby did not cover the Wilson trip.

Some of the testimony from the reporters did not enhance Libby's credibility. According to Pincus, Libby told him that Wilson's trip to Niger had been sparked by a question about the Niger allegation raised by an aide to the vice president. But the CIA had dispatched Wilson to Africa after Cheney himself asked about the NIger allegation. In talking to Pincus, Libby was dissembling to keep the boss out of the picture.

When Novak testified, he noted that on July 8, 2003, shortly after Armitage told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, he (Novak) called Libby--and Novak's phone records support this. Libby returned the call that day or the next, according to Novak, and the two discussed the ongoing controversy concerning Bush's use of the Niger allegation in his 2003 State of the Union trip. Novak told the court that he might have asked Libby about Wilson's wife during this conversation but had no recollection of doing so. Yet during his grand jury testimony, Libby denied talking to Novak in this period. Libby claimed he had not had any conversation with Novak at "any time near" Novak's July 14, 2003 leak column--noting he had spoken to Novak "maybe a year and a half" before that article and then a "week and a half or so" after the column came out. Why then does Novak clearly recall a conversation with Libby at that time? This conflict in recollection was not addressed by the prosecution and the defense.

Through the day, the testimony of the notable journalists yielded several news nuggets. Fleischer was revealed to be more of a leaker than previously disclosed. (When he testified as a prosecution witness, Fleischer admitted to leaking to NBC News reporter David Gregory and John Dickerson, then of Time--though Dickerson's emails from the time show Fleischer did not tell him about Wilson's wife.) And Novak confirmed that Karl Rove, the Bush administration's top strategist, was the second source for his column blowing Valerie Wilson's cover. On the stand, Novak noted that at the time of the leak Rove was a "good source" with whom he spoke to two or three times a week. He said that he and Rove had a "modus operandi" in which Rove would quickly confirm or deny information Novak possessed without Novak "getting into a long dissertation"--and that Rove confirmed the information leaked to Novak by Armitage. Anyone remember the White House vow made by then-press secretary Scott McClellan in fall 2003 that any White House official involved in the leak would be booted out of the Bush administration? Confirming a leak is certainly involvement. Rove, though, still works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Tony Snow, care to comment?)

On the stand, Novak also said that he shared a draft of his leak column three days before it was published with a good friend and Republican lobbyist named Richard Hohlt. (Hohlt has represented BMW, JP Morgan Chase, SBC Communications, the Nuclear Energy Institute, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Northwest Airlines, and other corporate clients.) Novak testified that he had a "vague recollection" that Hohlt that day told the White House that a "very interesting" piece would be coming out. This seemed curious: Novak slipping a column to a GOP lobbyist who then immediately provided a head's up to the White House. But nothing else about this episode was disclosed.

When Woodward was on the stand, the prosecution introduced as evidence an audio clip of two minutes from Woodward's taped June 13 interview with Armitage. This was the first time--as far as the public record goes--that a Bush administration official told a reporter that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA. (Woodward did not report the information.) Armitage, according to a transcript of this exchange, showed Woodward a classified memo noting that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The memo had it wrong; Valerie Wilson was operations chief for the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division in the agency's clandestine operations directorate.) "His wife is in the agency....," said Armitage, who is well-known for his use of salty language. "How about that [expletive deleted]." (The transcript introduced in court redacted Armitage's salt.)

With Monday's testimony, the defense took a stab at providing a behavioral alibi for Libby. He didn't leak here, so he didn't leak there. It's unclear what the rest of the defense is going to cover. Libby's lawyers have said they expect to call Jill Abramson of The New York Times (supposedly to impeach Judith Miller's earlier testimony) and NBC News' Andrea Mitchell (supposedly to impeach Russert's earlier testimony). Libby's attorney have also mentioned bringing to the stand former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow and John Hannah, Cheney's current national security adviser. Hannah would presumably testify as to how busy Libby was with national security leaks at the time of the Valerie Wilson leak. His lawyers could then argue that Libby cannot be expected to remember accurately such minor business as the leak.

The defense has not yet declared whether it will call Cheney or Libby as witnesses. And the defense and prosecution have been squabbling over what evidence could be introduced should Libby not testify. Libby's lawyers began their case with a side issue: what Libby didn't say to other reporters. They have yet to disclose all that will follow.


DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." 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.

Note to Schumer: What About George Bailey?

In his new book, Positively American: Winning Back the American Middle Class One Family at a Time, Senator Charles Schumer reveals the imaginary constituents that have long informed his political career: Joe and Eileen Bailey. The Baileys live in a suburb of Long Island with their three kids, they both work, and they earn about $75,000 annually. They worry about terrorism, health care, property taxes, college tuition, outsourcing, elderly care and retirement. They believe in charity but also that "people who work hard and play by the rules will do fine in America.... They don't follow politics particularly closely and are not ideological, but they always vote.... In 2006, they crossed back to the Democratic side for the first time in years." Schumer says that the Baileys are in towns across the nation, with different names and backgrounds, but common interests and the feeling that the government too often focuses on the "very rich or very poor" while overlooking their needs.

Schumer says he wrote this book because he believes that in 2008 a long-term majority is there for the taking, and that only by creating a platform that appeals to the Baileys will the Democrats be successful in doing that. He offers a plan that he calls " The 50% Solution," which he says is "our kitchen table compact" with "all the Baileys in America." It includes some smart ideas such as tripling federal education spending and putting an end to an inequitable system that relies on property taxes to fund our public schools; committing $10 billion a year "to create a Manhattan Project for new energy"; guaranteeing all Americans access to early-detection screenings for high-risk cancers (though Schumer tellingly avoids proposing universal health care other than to write that it's "a Democratic worldview, but it doesn't tie to a specific policy that we are ready to implement"); and restoring Pell Grants and federal loans and adjusting them as average tuition costs increase in the future.

Schumer describes this moment as one when Democrats need to be "clearer, bolder, broader." But ironically, while many of the new Senate leaders Schumer helped to elect as Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee--like Sherrod Brown, Jim Webb, and Jon Tester--are all speaking in bold populist terms that capture a growing majority of Americans' frustration with the free trade/corporate agenda, Schumer has been promoting a go-slow approach that might tamp down the very boldness he claims to stand for in Positively American. Indeed, at a recent book discussion in Washington, DC, Schumer said that he believes presidential candidate John Edwards' populist stance on trade is "a mistake" politically and policy-wise.

As I read this book, I repeatedly thought of another fictitious, decidedly middle-class Bailey: the great American icon George Bailey, of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. I would imagine that Schumer's Baileys--like most Americans--love George Bailey. And why do we love him (aside from Jimmy Stewart's charm, charisma, good looks, etc.)? Because George Bailey fights and sacrifices for the welfare of ordinary Americans. He is dedicated to keeping the Potters of the world from buying influence and taking over people's lives, neighborhoods and communities.

In Positively American, Senator Schumer would do well to extend his circle of imaginary constituents to include one more Bailey.

The Most Corrupt Bushies

Who are the 25 most corrupt officials in the Bush Administration? Where does one even start?

With Scooter Libby, on trial for lying to federal investigators? David Safavian, the top procurement official convicted of obstructing the government's probe of Jack Abramoff? How about Dusty Foggo, the CIA's #3 guy, who steered contracts to lobbyist friends of Duke Cunningham? Don't forget Kenneth Tomlinson, the man Karl Rove appointed to censor NPR and PBS.

Narrowing a down a list like this is no enviable task. Luckily Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) has sifted through the records. Over the last six years CREW found over 160 cases of misconduct in the Bush Administration and narrowed the cast of "criminals and scoundrels" down to 25, "based on type of offense, the official's level of responsibility and the impact on the public trust."

The examples of offense range from "sexual misconduct to theft to immigration fraud," the report states. Some are pathetically hilarious. Most are deeply disturbing. The report as a whole is a damning indictment of the way this Administration does business. Click here to read the full report.

America's Not Ready to Make Nice

Introduced by folk-singing legend Joan Baez as "three brave women," the Dixie Chicks took the stage at the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony to sing their no-apologies for dissenting anthem: "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Baez, a veteran anti-war campaigner encouraged the crowd to "please listen closely'' to the words of the song the Texas trio penned in response to efforts by conservative politicians and commentators to destroy the group's career after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London crowd on the eve of the invasion of Iraq: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.''

At the time, Maines's words represented a dangerous dissent from the heavily-spun status quo that said that invading and occupying Iraq was a good idea – and that Bush was a capable leader taking his country in a necessary direction. After Maines spoke up in March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks found themselves labeled "traitors." Their music knocked off radio playlists nationwide and their CDs were rubbished at events organized by media outlets that once embraced the band. The trio faced threats not just to their livelihoods but to their lives.

Instead of backing down, they responded with a passionate embrace of freedom of speech, and a push back at Bush and his acolytes that culminated in defiant songs such as "Shut Up and Sing" and "Not Ready to Make Nice." The latter tune declared: "I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down, I'm still mad as hell…"

Maines is not the only one who is mad now. The realization that Bush lied the country into an unwise and unnecessary war – along with the recognition that the war has degenerated into a quagmire of nightmarish proportions – has made mainstream America every bit as embarrassed by Bush as the singer from Texas was four years ago.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans now disapprove of Bush.

At the same time, record sales show that the vast majority of Americans approve of the Dixie Chicks. While the Dixie Chicks maintained much of their popularity even as they were being attacked by the right, they are today every bit as "on top" of the music scene as they were before Maines dared to dissent.

The album that contains "Not Ready to Make Nice" went to No. 1 on the charts last year, and remains a strong seller.

And, on Sunday night, the band that was once shunned by many in the music industry as "dangerous" did not just perform a triumphal rendition of their fight-back song.

The Dixie Chicks picked up five Grammies, including awards for best song, best record and album of the year.

When the history of the Bush presidency is written, it will be remembered by honest observers that there was always opposition to this president and his war. Despite the White House claims that everyone was behind the president when he sent U.S. troops into Iraq, the fact is that millions of Americans said "no." And some of them did so at great risk to their careers and fortunes.

The Grammy Awards offer recognition of that courage – as well as the talent of three remarkably able musicians. They also recognize that the willingness of a few good citizens to exercise their Constitutional rights even in an era of oppressive spin eventually taught the great mass of Americans that it was not merely right but necessary to speak up.

As Natalie Maines said Sunday night: "I think people are using their freedom of speech tonight with all these awards."

She's got a point. The Grammy Awards are, first and foremost, celebrations of the music. But, this year, they were also celebrations of basic liberties and those who chose to employ them in the face of threats from the frightened little men who told not just the Dixie Chicks but every American who dared dissent to "Shut Up and Sing."


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.'"

Surging into Hell

So far, what exactly is surging in Iraq?

US casualties, which are at a post-invasion high: According to an Associated Press analysis, more American troops were "killed in combat in Iraq over the past four months--at least 334 through Jan. 31--than in any comparable stretch since the war began"; and February, with 34 American deaths in its first nine days, is exceeding this pace. These loses are largely due to roadside bombs (IEDs) and to the fact that U.S. troops are now engaged in almost continuous urban warfare. Before the invasion of Iraq, the possibility of fighting an urban war in the Iraqi capital's streets and alleys was the American high command's personal nightmare. Now, it's their reality--and the President's surge plan can only make it more nightmarish.

Downings of U.S. helicopters, six in less than three weeks: With road travel, even in convoys, now so dangerous, thanks to IEDs, the helicopter has been a transport workhorse for the U.S. military in Iraq. The sudden surge in downed helicopters raises the specter of new tactics by the insurgents as well as the possibility that they have new, advanced missiles in their hands. It raises a warning flag of the first order. Let's not forget that the beginning of the end of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s came when CIA-supplied Stinger missiles began to take down Russian helicopters in significant numbers.

Iraqi and American no-shows: The first Iraqi Army units promised by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the beginning of the February surge in the capital have shown up. But as with everything involving that Green Zone government and Iraqi forces generally, there is a catch: The initial Iraqi brigades are evidently at only 55-65% troop strength. Undoubtedly, these no-shows are Kurds and Shiites who didn't want to leave their home areas to fight in Baghdad. In addition, according to McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, who went out on patrol with Iraqi forces in Baghdad recently, despite the $15.4 billion the American military has so far poured into "standing them up," they are militia-infiltrated, incompetent, and exceedingly corrupt. Nor have most American troops designated to surge into Baghdad arrived yet. Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times estimates that only 20% of the promised surge forces, Iraqi and American--about 5,000 troops in all--have even made it to the capital. (The fifth and final American brigade in this plan isn't scheduled to arrive until May!) In the meantime, senior American diplomats, voting with their analytic feet, are resisting taking posts in Iraq, assignments which, unlike military personnel, they are not obliged to accept. (They are evidently doing so on the same basic what-the-hell-am-I-going-there-for principle as the Kurdish and Shiite troops.)

Iraqi refugees: One out of every seven Iraqis has by now "fled his or her home or sought refuge abroad," reports the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "Every day," according to McClatchy's Warren Strobel, "violence displaces an estimated 1,300 more Iraqis in the country; every month, at least 40,000." According to UN officials, in surging Iraq, things are only expected to worsen. "The UNHCR projects that the number of internally displaced in Iraq could grow to about 2.7 million by year's end." An in-depth assessment conducted by the International Medical Corps, a humanitarian organization, suggests that "over one million residents of Baghdad could be driven from their homes in the next six months if Iraq's sectarian violence continues at its current level." That would be a surge indeed.

The devastation of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad: Some of these are being turned into ghost areas, as Ilana Ozernoy and Ali Hamdani indicate in a limited survey of one street in a Sunni area of the capital that appeared recently in the Atlantic. Other accounts seem to verify this. For instance, New York Times reporter Damien Cave, in a piece on how the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City is beginning to thrive under the protection of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and with reconstruction money from the Maliki government, comments in passing that, in contrast, "middle-class Sunni enclaves are withering into abandoned ghettos, starved of government services."

Massive publicity about the details of the slow-to-happen surge operation: These have been offered copiously by the supposedly security-conscious Bush administration, giving Sunnis and Shiites opportunity to prepare both defenses and evasions. It has meant, according to early American military assessments, that in the first search operations in key neighborhoods, they are finding little or nothing. ("'I don't know if it's bad information, bad intelligence, of if they knew we were coming and left,' said Capt. Isaac Torres of the Army's 3rd Brigade Stryker Combat Team. ‘They were all dry holes.'")

Oh, as for the surge plan itself, Michael Schwartz at Tomdispatch.com points out that the President's new surge plan has already been tested in the last few weeks in an offensive that began on Baghdad's Haifa Street, adjacent to the Green Zone, a day before Bush officially announced his plan and was found to be most successful -- in further depopulating the capital's Sunni neighborhoods as well as creating more destruction, greater sectarian violence, and new levels of animosity. His is a devastating piece on another bit of Bush administration planning that takes us right through the "gates of hell."

Circling the Square

The day before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Paul Smith. Paul's what might be called an Obama "early adopter." Like a lot of young, Chicago progressives, he threw himself into Obama's senate candidacy when he was just a long-shot in a crowded primary field. In fact, Paul and I first met at an Obama fundraiser in the fall of 2003. So few donors had bought tickets for the event that a mutual friend on the campaign asked us to show up just to fill the room.

Over breakfast we talked about Obama's impending announcement. Paul was preparing to drive down with me on Saturday to watch the speech in person, but feeling ambivalent about the candidate himself. "I can't quite figure out where to plant my flag on him," he said. "I was looking back at my blog from 2004 and the posts I wrote about him and I was so completely committed to him and so convinced he was special and wanted to convince others. And now, I just, I can't quite get back to that. I want to recapture it, but I can't remember what it was."

In the car-ride down to Springfield on Saturday, we were also joined by our friend Dan, another early supporter. He met Obama through a mutual friend around the same time Paul became involved with the campaign. He donated money, organized friends, and became close with many of the campaign staff. I asked Dan if he shared Paul's doubts. "I have issues," he said with a frown. "He's so fucking coy. I mean, I love the guy, but there are things that really matter to me, and they've got to really matter to him. And it's not clear to me right now that they do."

This sentiment is pretty widely shared among the Chicago progressives I know. Many have grown disillusioned with a man they once thought was one of their own and now seems in danger of becoming just another politician. Part of this can be chalked up to a kind of punk-rock-band-gone-MTV disaffection. People who were into Obama when he was an underground, authentic phenomenon aren't necessarily so into the slickly produced, more pop-friendly version.

But then, music can be both really predictable and really popular, and the same is true of politicians. When I talked to people on Saturday, who'd come out on a freezing February morning to stand in the cold and hear a speech they recited, with an almost unsettling fidelity, the campaign's own buzzwords: A college student from downstate said she liked Obama because he was from a "different generation," and that she'd decided to come to "be part of history." A recovering Republican grandmother said she admired Obama because he was "fresh" and two middled-age men with Obama t-shirts spent several minutes telling a Chinese news crew that Obama was a "uniter not a divider." The reporter kept pushing the two men to name specific examples of this quality, but they just kept repeating the point.

Having it both ways, attempting to be at once a progressive champion and an ideological cipher, has become the hallmark of the Obama rhetorical strategy, but there are still so many circles this campaign is trying to square, you wonder if it can last. On the one hand, Obama wants to present his campaign as something more than a campaign, a kind of grassroots, people-powered movement. "That's why I'm in this race," he said Saturday, "Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation." When people like Paul and Dan and others were working on Obama's senate campaign in 2004, that's how it felt. But now he's running for president at a moment in history when the national media rewards the kind of air-tight focus and message discipline that are not exactly what actual grassroots movements are known for producing. So as people entered the square outside the old state capitol in Springfield, security confiscated any home-made signs (all they need is one off-message slogan -- "Destroy The Zionist State!" -- in the frame to cause a week of headaches.) But inside the entrance to the plaza, someone, most likely the campaign, distributed ersatz homemade signs with slogans like "Barack the Vote!" and "Vote 4 Obama" all painted with the same multi-colored palette.

Then there's the other major contradiction of the campaign, the fact that it is simultaneously promising two things -- progress and unity -- that have an uncomfortable relationship to each other. In his speech, Obama recited moments in American history when politics became something more than the mundane mechanics of governing and effected a true transformation of the polity: the civil war, the New Deal, the civil rights movement. But the problem is that those were moments not of unity, but of extreme polarization. The South only granted rights to black citizens under force of arms, armies of unruly war veterans gathered in Washington DC during the Great Depression to demand the government provide them with a safety net, and when Martin Luther King Jr went marching through the South, he was met with batons and firehoses and accusations that he was dividing people and stirring up trouble.

Standing on the site of where Abraham Lincoln gave his "house divided" speech, Obama invoked him as a model:

"[T]he life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.He tells us that there is power in words.He tells us that there is power in conviction.That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people."

It's hard to quarrel with the sentiment. But Obama didn't mention that Lincoln was also the most hated and polarizing figure in American presidential history. Sometimes unity is the price of progress.

Fox News Goes Corporate

It's official: Rupert Murdoch is launching a new business channel that will be "more business friendly" than its competitors, namely CNBC.

As if CNBC (owned by General Electric) isn't business friendly enough. Every night Lawrence Kudlow hawks the latest supply side argument and grotesque piece of corporate welfare. Recently Maria Bartiromo, the so-called "Money Honey," came under fire after it was disclosed that she hitched rides on Citigroup jets and did promotional appearances for the company. The network, with its omnipresent stock ticker, resembles a never-ending pep rally for Wall Street.

Fox Business Channel wants to do one better. Forget Enron, Worldcom, Goldman Sachs's bonuses or Exxon Mobil's earnings, now that Democrats are in charge of Congress corporate America needs to be cheered up. The new channel will be led by Roger Ailes, the Fox News mastermind who taught Karl Rove everything he needed to know.

There used to be a time, back in the day, when great muckraking reporters like my colleague Bill Greider dominated the business pages. Hard-hitting investigative stories were standard fare. Those days are over at most newspapers and almost completely nonexistent on TV. Murdoch can once again rejoice.

Drew Gilpin Faust: Why We Love War

Drew Faust, the historian who has been named Harvard's first female president, has been praised for her "people skills," but she's also done brilliant intellectual work on a crucial question for our time: why we love war. A Civil War historian who has published five books, Faust wrote recently about why war is "history's most popular subject."

In http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri=/journals/civil_war_history/v... >an article published in 2004 in the journal Civil War History, Faust explores the place of war in American politics and culture today. War, she writes, "offers an authenticity and intensity of experience" missing elsewhere in modern society. It provides "a moment of truth," when soldiers and civilians alike "have to define their deeply held priorities and act on them."

Causation is typically the big issue for scholars and analysts who study war: explaining and interpreting, in a dispassionate way, why particular wars have been fought. And of course much of our current argument is about the reasons the Bush White House gave for going to war in Iraq.

But for ordinary people, Faust argues, what counts is not so much the analysis of causation, but rather the personal stories, the human drama of war. The fascination with war can be "almost pornographic in its combination of thrill and terror." But that doesn't mean the details of suffering and the tragedies of death are overlooked. Personal stories of suffering and death make war "a force that gives us meaning"--the phrase is the title of a book by award-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges.

Faust's interpretation helps explain the way the US responded to the 9-11 terrorist attacks with a war on Iraq. "Even a war against an enemy who had no relationship to September 11's terrorist acts would do," she notes. People supported war not just because of the rational arguments offered by the White House, but also "because the nation required the sense of meaning, intention, and goal-directedness, the lure of efficacy that war promises." It was especially necessary to restore a sense of control after the terrorism of 9-11 had "obliterated" it. The US, she concludes, "needed the sense of agency that operates within the structure of narrative provided by war."

Those who write about war, she concludes – journalists and historians – need to acknowledge the power of war stories. Their job is to create "an orderly narrative," full of purpose and significance, about events that otherwise "would be simply violence," shapeless and meaningless.

Thus we are the ones who give meaning to war – so it's up to us to come to terms with the power of war stories. "In acknowledging its attraction," she concludes, " we diminish its power" – we move from being part of the problem to part of the solution.

Harvard's last president, Larry Summers, had been a Clinton administration free trade policy wonk. By choosing as its new president a scholar whose work has so much depth and significance, the university suggests a different sense of what intellectual leadership might mean.

Obama's In, Predictably

The only thing about the launch of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy that wasn't meticulously stage managed was the weather. Outside the old statehouse in downtown Springfield, it was sunny but the thermometer hovered in the teens and even the thousands of hearty Illinois Democrats who had shown up for the "historic event" were shivering uncontrollably by the time the senator arrived with a standard-issue opening line about how, despite the cold, "I'm fired up."

Obama's announcement, which had been anticipated since he announced last month that he would be announcing this month, had all the spontaneity of a Bill O'Reilly rant about "San Francisco values." There was the predictable U2 music, the predictable Lincoln reference – "a house divided…" – and the predictable "hand-lettered" signs promising to "Barack the Vote!" Leaving no cliché unuttered, Obama reminded the crowd that his was not a campaign but "a journey."

And a long one it shall be.

The frustrating thing about Barack Obama's "improbable quest" is that very little about it seems improbable. This campaign began as exactly what it is: a calculated grab the Democratic nomination by an appealing young senator who is risking very little in the hope of achieving very much.

Obama did deliver a fine populist line addressing his relative inexperience: "Now listen, I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement. I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

But even that soliloquy was woven with the point of getting in a mention of his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope.

With the exception of the weather that accompanied it, nothing about Barack Obama's announcement was particularly invigorating.

That's not to say that the senator's launch was inept.

If anything, it was too ept, too well plotted, too reflective of the high-powered consultants who are managing one of the more interesting men ever to seek the presidency into the narrow confines occupied by every man who has ever sought the presidency.

Of course, Obama went through the motions with finesse. This is not some bumbling Biden we're talking about.

The junior senator from Illinois began by reviewing the challenges facing the country, as must any presidential candidate who is not an incumbent seeking reelection.

"All of us know what those challenges are today -- a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can," Obama said. "We know the challenges. We've heard them. We've talked about them for years."

And he talked about them some more on Saturday morning.

Obama was at his most effective in Springfield – as he was two and a half years ago while delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston – when he scored the Bush administration, and by gentle extension the so-called Democratic "opposition," of recent years.

"For the last six years we've been told that our mounting debts don't matter, we've been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we've been told that climate change is a hoax, we've been told that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight. And when all else fails, when Katrina happened, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault. We're distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants," the senator boomed. "And as people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what's filled the void. The cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. 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 today to take it back. The time for that kind of politics is over. It is through. It's time to turn the page right here and right now."

But did Obama offer much of a change?

Not from a policy standpoint. His pronouncements, such as they were, sounded like Democratic regifting.

"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age." O.K., but the rhetoric was fresher when Al Gore was peddling it in 1999.

"Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability." Didn't Bill Clinton say that in 1991?

"Let's be the generation that ends poverty in America." Er, John Edwards.

And so it went.

Obama said most of the right things. And he did so with the rhetorical flourishes that distinguish him from most of the other runners in a crowded Democratic field.

But the cautious candidate broke little in the way of new ground, pushed few limits and took no risks with his announcement. He wants the troops home from Iraq by next March, but is he willing to use the power of the purse to make it happen? He wants health care for all by the end of his first presidential term, but is he talking single-payer? He wants to end poverty, but does that mean the United States is going to start redistributing wealth down to those who lack it -- as opposed to the current upward trajectory? Of are we looking at another one of those "rising-tide-raises-all-boats" scenario?

There is no question that Obama is charismatic.

The size of the crowd in Springfield was no fluke. His "rock-star" campaign will draw the largest and most enthusiastic audiences throughout this campaign.

But Obama has to offer the people more than an acknowledgement of what ails the nation that, with a few tinkers, could be delivered by any number of moderate Republicans.

If Barack Obama's campaign is going to cause the nation to shake off its slumber "and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth," as the senator promised on Saturday, this candidate must give America more than repackaged rhetoric and another U2 song. America does not need a new generation of careful politicians mounting predictable campaign. America needs a rock star who is ready to play a new song.


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.'"