The Nation

A Blast from Vitter's Past

In the fall of 1998, David Vitter felt compelled to weigh in on the national debate over the possible impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about sex. Vitter was not yet a member of Congress; he was a Republican state representative. And in an October 29, 1998, opinion piece for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Vitter took issue with a previous article, written by two law professors who had argued that impeachment "is a process of removing a president from office who can no longer effectively govern; it is not about punishment." Given that Clinton was still a capable chief executive, they had maintained, impeachment was not in order.

Vitter, a graduate of Harvard University and Tulane law school and a Rhodes scholar, was aghast at this amoral position. He blasted the law professors for criticizing those congressional Republicans pushing for Clinton's impeachment. Their argument that impeachment is "not primarily about right and wrong or moral fitness to govern," he wrote, was utterly wrongheaded. He continued:

Some current polls may suggest that people are turned off by the whole Clinton mess and don't care -- because the stock market is good, the Clinton spin machine is even better or other reasons. But that doesn't answer the question of whether President Clinton should be impeached and removed from office because he is morally unfit to govern.

The writings of the Founding Fathers are very instructive on this issue. They are not cast in terms of political effectiveness at all but in terms of right and wrong -- moral fitness. Hamilton writes in the Federalists Papers(No. 65) that impeachable offenses are those that "proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust."

In considering impeachment, Vitter asserted, Congress had to judge Clinton on moral terms. Decrying the law professors' failure to see this, Vitter observed, "Is that the level of moral relatively [sic] and vacuousness we have come to?" If no "meaningful action" were to be taken against Clinton, Vitter wrote, "his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture."

Strong words. Now that Vitter, who entered the House of Representatives in 1999 after winning a special election to fill the seat of Representative Bob Livingston (who resigned after being caught in an adultery scandal) and who was elected senator in 2004, has admitted he placed a phone call to the so-called DC Madam, his constituents can only wonder if he will hold himself to the same standards he sought to apply to Bill Clinton.

Vitter, who is married with four children, has been a vigorous advocate of family values, championing abstinence-only programs and calling for a ban on gay marriage. In a statement his office rushed out on Monday night--before he could be outed by Hustler magazine--Vitter said he had committed a "serious sin" and claimed that "several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling." I seem to recall that Bill Clinton took a similar stance after he acknowledged his affair with Monica Lewinsky. That, though, did not prevent Vitter from calling for Clinton's forcible removal from office.

Perhaps Vitter ought to revisit the issue of whether the absence of moral fitness is a firing offense for a public official.


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.

Vitter-Sweet on DC Madam

So much for the DC madam's client list not being newsworthy. Tell that to Senator David Vitter, the conservative Louisiana Republican and first major politico linked to Madam Deborah Jane Palfrey.

After the AP reported that his phone number appeared in Palfrey's phone records, Vitter apologized for "a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible." He continued: "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling." It was unclear if that was before or after a prominent Louisiana Republican accused Vitter of repeatedly shaking up with a prostitute in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Vitter, in yet another delicious slice of religious right hypocrisy, is one of the most outspoken social conservatives in the Senate. He co-sponsored legislation to federally finance abstinence-only education and called a ban on gay marriage the most important issue in the country today. He also told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that "infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families."

Marc Ambinder reminds us that Vitter was the first GOP Senator to endorse Rudy Giuliani and serves as one of the campaign's key ambassadors to social conservatives.

It gets better. Vitter first ran for Congress to fill the seat of Speaker of the House Bob Livingston, who resigned after his extramarital affairs became public. Asked in 2000 what she would do if her husband committed similar transgressions, Vitter's wife Wendy responded: "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

Texas' Commuter-in-Chief

Back in the days when Governor George Bush was only able to screw up Texas instead of an entire nation, fifty-seven lawyers representing men—and a woman—on death row requested commutations so that their clients might receive life instead of death.

When approached by lawyers representing mentally retarded inmates, Bush refused.

When approached by lawyers representing inmates whose court-appointed lawyers had slept during their trials, Bush refused.

When approached by lawyers representing men who had committed the crime in question as juveniles, Bush refused.

In each case, then-Governor Bush felt that the defendants had had full and equal access to the law.

But now along comes Scooter. President Bush deemed his thirty-month sentence “excessive” and—just like that—commuted his sentence prior to any judicial review. Libby had the finest legal representation. He never expressed any remorse for lying to a grand jury or for his role in the administration’s snow job on the American people that led our nation into a war. Yet Scooter is the lucky soul granted clemency by Bush.

In an article for the once-hyped but now defunct magazine, Talk, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson interviewed then-Gov. Bush about Karla Faye Tucker, a woman who had recently been executed after he denied her clemency. Bush’s response struck Carlson as “odd and cruel” and he described this exchange:

“I watched [Larry King’s] interview with [Karla Faye Tucker]…,” Bush said. “He asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’ ‘What was her answer?’ I wonder.

‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me.’

Odd and cruel, indeed. Carlson provoked a bit of a media storm for revealing Bush’s callousness at a time when—unlike now—he was still viewed as Mr. Compassionate Conservative. (The Bush presidential campaign tried to deny that Bush had made this statement but to no avail.) Bush seemed all the more cruel given that appeals for clemency had been made by figures from around the world, including Newt Gingrich, Pat Robertson, the Huntsville prison warden and correction officers who testified that Tucker was a model prisoner and reformed, a prosecutor of her accomplice, the brother of one of her murder victims, Pope John Paul II and the European Parliament.

Sister Helen Prejean, one of the preeminent fighters against the death penalty and the inspiration for the film Dead Man Walking, wrote, “Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person’s plea for mercy, then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt.” (Prejean was alluding to George Bush’s election-year memoir—A Charge to Keep—in which he wrote that Tucker’s impending execution “felt like a huge piece of concrete…crushing me.”) Preajan described her response when she was told on Larry King of Bush’s final press release before Tucker’s execution in which he stated, “May God bless Karla Faye Tucker….” Prejean wrote, “Inside my soul I raged at Bush’s hypocrisy, but the broadcast was live and global…. [So] I took a quick breath, said a fierce prayer, looked into the camera, and said, ‘It’s interesting to see that Governor Bush is now invoking God, asking God to bless Karla Faye Tucker, when he certainly didn’t use the power in his own hands to bless her. He just had her killed.’”

The cruelty described by Carlson and Prejean clearly isn’t an anomaly. As veteran political journalist Robert Sherrill reported in a special issue of The Nation on the death penalty: “During his presidential campaign reporters asked [Bush] if he was bothered that some indigents on Texas’s death row had been represented by lawyers who slept though part of their trials; he responded with a chuckle.” The facts around representation for indigent defendants belie Bush’s amusement. Sherrill wrote that as of 2001, only three of Texas’s 254 counties had public defender programs. In the other counties judges picked the attorneys “who are [often] personal friends, political supporters and contributors, and, most of all, attorneys with a reputation for ‘moving’ cases fast…. Texas’s county judges have appointed lawyers known to be drunks or drug addicts or both. Some of these court-appointed hacks know absolutely nothing about capital jurisprudence. Several have become famous for sleeping through parts of trials.”

And Amy Bach revealed in The Nation, “Studies proved inmates had been put to death in Texas despite representation by disbarred, suspended or incompetent attorney.” She wrote of a Texas State Bar survey that found “… 30 percent of judges said they knew colleagues who assigned counsel because they contributed to their judicial election campaigns. Others confessed to picking lawyers they knew would move dockets along and not give vigorous representation.” Bach pointed out that this kind of representation “renders the equal protection clause and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel virtually meaningless.”

Despite this weak public system, and mounting DNA evidence exonerating convicted death row inmates—including thirteen people in Illinois—Bush said in June 2000 that no innocent person had been sent to death row or executed in Texas (he had presided over the execution of more than 135 people at the time; Illinois had executed twelve people since 1977).

But Paddy Lann Burwell, who then-Gov. Bush had appointed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, repudiates Bush’s claim when it comes to the case of Gary Graham. Prior to the execution of Graham, the court-appointed lawyer “performed poorly” to say the least. Graham was convicted by a single witness who testified to seeing him through a car windshield some thirty to forty feet away. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Two witnesses who said that they had seen the killer and it wasn’t Graham weren’t called to testify. Graham was also 17 at the time of the murder.

“He didn’t commit the crime we executed him for,” Burwell told the Times.

Since those days when Bush was chuckling at those executed under his watch, the Supreme Court has ruled (for now it was a 5-4 decision) that capital punishment of juvenile offenders and mentally retarded people is a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But that decision came too late for Terry Washington, who Prejean described as “a mentally retarded man of thirty-three with the communication skills of a seven-year-old.”

After then-Gov. Bush’s typical thirty-minute meeting with legal counsel—you guessed it—Alberto Gonzales, Bush denied clemency. Washington’s mental handicap had never been brought to the attention of the jury that convicted him. Gonzales’s memo (obtained by journalist Alan Berlow through the Public Information Act) made no mention of this omission in the trial or the failure by Washington’s lawyer to seek the testimony of a mental health expert. The post-conviction lawyers found a history of child abuse, including regular beatings by “whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts.” But none of this would lead to Bush deeming Washington’s penalty “excessive,” and commuting a death sentence to a life sentence.

When all was said and done, Governor Bush had snickered and mocked his way to denying commutations to fifty-seven of the more than 150 people executed under his watch. He then took his moral-certitude-by-any-means-necessary to the White House where one Scooter Libby would help him mislead a nation into a human catastrophe in Iraq and then lie about it.

More than 150 men and women are dead and gone with no second chances. But Scooter, well, one cold night in jail was just too much for his friend the President to bear.

More Analysis of OpenLeft

Yesterday marked the launch of a major new progressive blog, OpenLeft, which I wrote about in this Nation article. During my research I interviewed William Beutler, a Republican consultant who has a knowledgeable and critical eye for blog analysis. As former editor of the Hotline Blogometer, Beutler regularly read more blogs across the political spectrum than just about anyone; now he writes Blop P.I. and has an inside view of the presidential race working at New Media Strategies, which is advising Fred Thompson. Like any interview, most of his points are not in the article, so the email interview is below for hardcore blog fans.

And for other OpenLeft talk, check out Ian Welsh, a goodbye post from its founding father site, MyDD, and this excellent, long essay at OpenLeft by Chris Bowers, "New Establishment Rising? The End Of the Flat Blogosphere."


AM: What do you think of the people running this site [OpenLeft] and its potential?

WB: I think it depends on what they actually do with it and what they call success. If we're defining success as eyeballs and influence in the blogosphere, they're set. Bowers and Stoller obviously come with a built-in audience of fellow progressive bloggers.

But getting MyDD's Beltway audience to follow them, and especially getting establishment Democrats to participate, that's a harder sell. The big-shots are already blogging at Huffington Post, and lower-level consultants won't be as forthcoming or eager to participate.

This is especially the case if Chris isn't writing as much about party infrastructure and the horse race, and Matt's reputation as a hothead will be an issue. He has a talent for alienating establishment types that will be tough to overcome. Chris will be of less interest to the Stu Rothenberg types, while Matt will keep pushing buttons. I don't see that as being a website the establishment will leap to get involved with.

So I see Open Left as building primarily a netroots audience that is at a disadvantage compared to HuffPo and Daily Kos in getting participation from elected and professional Democrats.

Considering Lux's background with PFAW and Bowers' work for SEIU, I think they'll find more of an audience with activist groups that are themselves set apart from campaign professionals. But they've already had that -- see Andy Stern contributing to MyDD, for example. And the really important discussions and deals won't happen on a website that's open to the general public. So Lux has his work cut out for him.

AM: This site is supposed to bridge progressive discussions between insiders and outsiders, like grassroots bloggers and the leaders of the liberal orgs. Do you think that is a realistic project that the netroots will be interested in? Or is it a tough line to walk, sort of like HotSoup failed?

WB: Whatever happens to Open Left, it won't be like HotSoup. [AP Reporter Ron] Fournier and company had no idea what to do with an online community or even how to build a website and no clear idea who their audience was. These guys don't have that problem. I think the better analogy is HuffPo -- that website is very successful, but it's not quite what Arianna originally envisioned. The netroots will come to the table, and probably so will the offline activist orgs. Campaign professionals, not so much.

AM: Do you think of grassroots bloggers like Bowers and Stoller as outsiders or insiders? And what about you, as a "bottom up" blog guy who now advises major candidates? Or is that even the right way to think about bloggers who have "broken through"?

WB: Insider-outsiderness is a matter of degrees, and I'd say they're both much more of insiders than they might think. But there's a huge difference between blogging about campaigns and actually running them. Professional operatives -- who are even further inside -- will hear them out, but they still have campaigns to win. There's a lot of resentment from Democrats who have worked cycle in, cycle out, who don't think somebody like Chris Bowers has any real concept of what it's like to run a campaign.

Especially among the left-netroots there's this recurring complaint about the "cocktail party circuit," and while it's not untrue, the parties I go to tend to be attended by other operatives, bloggers and journalists, most of them in their 20s and 30s, and it's not like they aren't rubbing shoulders with the powerful themselves.

Also: a growing issue is the Democratic netroots increasingly agitating for not just a bigger piece of the institutional pie, but also making more overt "asks" for financial support. I think they are already getting that. What will they do that Media Matters or the Center for American Progress isn't already doing? I think that's an open question. If Open Left becomes a place where they're often making that complaint, I think that only exacerbates the division.a

Starbucks On Trial

Today Starbucks went on trial in Manhattan, and I had the privilege of attending several hours of the proceedings today. On the way downtown, I noticed that a young woman on the subway seemed to be using a brown paper Starbucks bag as a purse. And it did make a pretty nice handbag! Starbucks's professions of concern for "corporate responsibility" are much like that: attractive packaging. In the trial that began today, the nation's leading purveyor of coffee-flavored milk drinks stands accused by the National Labor Relations Board of thirty violations of employee rights, especially firing workers for union organizing. Starbucks had seven lawyers present. The two fired workers in question-- Daniel Gross and Joe Agins, Jr., both IWW members -- were present. Gross wore a suit and looked sharp, as any activist appearing before a judge probably should. (Agins went for a less formal look -- a sleeveless muscle t-shirt.) Today both sides waded through the details of discovery; that is to say, the NLRB lawyers asked for documents from Starbucks, and the company's legal team whined about how "burdensome" it would be to get so many documents, because, since the turnover rate is so high, many of the relevant personnel files are now in storage. It is very difficult to get the files out once they go in, Stacy Eisenstein, one of Starbucks lead outside counsel, argued with a straight face. More incredibly, before the hearing had officially begun, she disputed the NLRB's contention that there was a union campaign going on when Gross and Agin were fired. If that is a major cornerstone of Starbucks's defense, the company could be in trouble, because the judge -- who seemed very fair-minded and interested in reaching reasonable compromises -- did not buy it, and allowed discovery based on the assumption that the date of the union campaign was relevant. (Also, there is ample public record of the campaign, including media coverage.) It will be interesting to see what happens. I can't be there for much of the rest of the trial, unfortunately, so I really hope other journalists and bloggers will go check it out. They are taking tomorrow off, and back in session Wednesday.

The Power of Buffy

Since it's July, we can't be all serious and informed at every moment, can we? So here's a link to a speech by Joss Whedon, creator of cult feminist icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

You may or may not remember how slyly witty that show was, or how funny and revolutionary it was that Joss gave us a blond cheerleader whose daily job it was to save the world from evil. Buffy was a rare female version of the confused-boy-coming-of-age-is-secretly-a-superhero genre (see also: Harry Potter, Spiderman). The series took certain adolescent emotions and made them literal: for instance, high school really was hell, the principal actually was working for the devil, and each adolescent drama really was about preventing the end of the world. Maybe you had to be there, but I was, I confess, a complete addict.

In this speech, Whedon impersonates himself on a press tour, repeatedly being asked the question, "Why do you write such strong women characters?" The answers get better and better. The speech may have been given awhile ago, but if I'd never seen it before, maybe it's new to you too. Enjoy.


Bush Erects Another Stonewall Against Accountability

Barely a week after he commuted the 30-month sentence of a former White House insider who was convicted of engaging in felonious attempts to thwart investigations of administration wrongdoing, President Bush has erected another barrier to getting to the truth about whether he and his aides have knowingly violated the law.

In a letter sent Monday to the Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who heads the parallel Senate panel, Bush invoked executive privilege to deny requests by the committees for testimony from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House political director Sara Taylor.

Bush's lawyers suggested that Miers and Taylor, both central players in the scandal that has emerged over attempts by the administration to politicize federal investigations and prosecutions, might speak with members of Congress about the firings of US Attorneys who did not go along with the administration's agenda. But the administration says that can only happen in closed-door, off-the-record "interviews" that would not be given under oath.

Conyers and Leahy have repeatedly rejected such proposals. The committee chairs say, correctly, that inquiries into whether the administration used the Justice Department for political purposes--particularly moves to fake up so-called "voter fraud" cases as part of a broader push to make it harder for elderly, low-income and minority citizens to cast ballots--must be open and above board.

That is not the style of this White House.

So uncooperative is Bush that his attorney, White House counsel Fred Fielding, even refused a request from lawmakers that the President explain the basis for invoking executive privilege.

Fielding would only claim that the "assertion of executive privilege here is intended to protect a fundamental interest of the presidency: the necessity that a president receive candid advice from his advisers and that those advisers be able to communicate freely and openly with the president, and each other and with others inside and outside the executive branch."

The truth, of course, is that the "fundamental interest" of the Bush presidency that is at stake is far more consequential than that of defending candid conversation in the White House. As with the decision to commute the sentence of "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, this imposition of executive privilege would appear to have far more to do with protecting the president from scrutiny than with maintaining the quality of internal White House communications.

Earlier this year, former White House counselor Dan Bartlett unwittingly confirmed that President Bush participated in discussions with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and political czar Karl Rove about firing US Attorneys who weren't sufficiently political in their prosecutions, is hightailing it out of the administration.

That makes the congressional requests for testimony from key players in the US Attorneys scandal something very different than a political "fishing expedition" that might chill dialogue in the White House. This is a matter of national interest that goes to the most critical question about any administration: Is the president playing by the rules of the Republic? Or has he placed himself above the rule of law and the Constitution to which he has sworn a solemn oath?

The determination of this administration to stonewall the US Attorneys inquiry--as it has so many others--sets up a classic confrontation in the courts. Both Leahy and Conyers have said that they are prepared to seek a Contempt of Congress citation, which is the essential first step in asking the federal courts to determine whether Bush has abused his authority to invoke executive privilege to block requests from the legislative branch.

It was on the basis of such a challenge that the Watergate scandal during the presidency of Richard Nixon evolved into a serious discussion of impeachment.

Objecting to the administration's "unacceptable all-or-nothing position," Conyers complains that Bush & Co. "now will not even seek to properly justify their privilege claims."

The senior member of the House committee, a veteran of the House's successful court challenges to Nixon during the Watergate struggles, added, "Contrary what the White House may believe, it is the Congress and the courts that will decide whether an invocation of executive privilege is valid, not the White House unilaterally."


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.'"

The GOP's Iraq "Anguish"

The newest GOP buzzword: anguished. That's the phrase most often used these days to describe how Republicans feel about the war in Iraq. Three prominent GOP Senators have rhetorically broken with the Bush Administration in the past two weeks. More are sure to follow.

According to the New York Times, "White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush's Iraq strategy are collapsing around them." Maine Senator Olympia Snowe says enough is enough. She invokes another Iraq buzzword: benchmarks. The Iraqi government must meet the targets requested by Congress by much-vaunted September. Or else.

Yet another dissident Senator, Indiana's Richard Lugar, says "there's no conceivable way that" the benchmarks will be met. And the White House may be preparing to scrap those goals altogether in search of "alternative evidence of progress."

What's an anguished Republican to do? They'll be votes on Iraq in Congress this week. That's a good place to start.

Operation Understanding DC

In early July Operation Understanding DC sent 31 African American and Jewish high school students from the DC area on a 25 day-long trip to learn about the great struggles--and the sweet victories--of Jews and African Americans who've fought for social justice in our nation‘s history.

"Our mission," said Rachael Feldman, executive director of OUDC, "is to build a future generation of African-American and Jewish young leaders who will work together to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and to promote respect and understanding."

The trip will take them to New York, then through North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. They will visit churches and synagogues and meet with prominent civil rights leaders. The journey is part of a year long program designed to help young people learn to fight injustice and promote tolerance. According to Feldman, in the six months before embarking on the trip, the students in the program "dived intensely into each others religions and cultures" meeting for five hours every Sunday to discuss issues like slavery and the holocaust.

Before they left for the trip, said Feldman, the students "were bouncing off the walls with excitement."

The annual program has been around since 1995, making this latest class the 13th group of kids to make the trip. Adam Yalowitz, completed the program last year and recently told the Washington Post, "Once you begin to think about what's going on in the community, you can't stop thinking about it …you want to act."

This is why OUDC's program, and other summer programs like it, are worth celebrating. By teaching young people about great civil rights victories from the past, and inspiring them to act now, they are ensuring that in the future there will be many more sweet victories.

This post was co-written by Michael Corcoran, a former Nation intern and freelance journalist residing in Boston. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Boston Globe and Campus Progress. he can be reached at www.michaelcorcoran.blogspot.com. Please send us your own ideas for "sweet victories" by emailing to nationvictories@gmail.com. We'll also bring you news about other summer programs and camps designed to inform and inspire the next generation of activists, organizers and thinkers. So please let us know of programs and camps we should be featuring!