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The Nation

Cheney Stayed At Uncle Tom's House

Newsweek reported an interesting tidbit about Cheney's stay at the exclusive 50,000 acre preserve known as the Armstrong Ranch. It seems that the Vice-President's lodgings were in a guest quarters called "Uncle Tom's House."

A house named for a member of the Armstrong family?

I look forward to more reporting on the names of other guest houses on the vast property which Newsweek describes as "'Gosford Park' with a twang."

Carter: Don't Punish the Palestinians

The yahoo crowd that runs U.S. foreign policy has been struggling to figure out how to get to the right of Israeli's Likud Party when it comes to countering the decision of the Palestinian people to give the political wing of Hamas an opportunity to form a government. But the new Bush doctrine of punishing people for casting their ballots for political parties that are not approved by the commissars in Washington does not sit well with the American president who actually forged significant progress toward peace in the Middle East -- and who understands the region better in his sleep than a wide-awake Dick Cheney before he's had that beer with lunch.

Jimmy Carter has been making the rounds of the television talk shows with an urgent message about what a mistake it would be to punish the Palestinian people for choosing a government that is not to the liking of Israeli or American politicians.

Carter, who led the team from the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute that observed last month's Palestinian elections, made his case well in an opinion piece headlined "Don't Punish the Palestinians," which first appeared Monday in the Washington Post.

Noting that the outlines of the Palestinian government are still taking shape, Carter argued that, "During this time of fluidity in the formation of the new government, it is important that Israel and the United States play positive roles. Any tacit or formal collusion between the two powers to disrupt the process by punishing the Palestinian people could be counterproductive and have devastating consequences."

"Unfortunately," Carter added, "these steps are already underway and are well known throughout the Palestinian territories and the world. Israel moved yesterday to withhold funds (about $50 million per month) that the Palestinians earn from customs and tax revenue. Perhaps a greater aggravation by the Israelis is their decision to hinder movement of elected Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members through any of more than a hundred Israeli checkpoints around and throughout the Palestinian territories. This will present significant obstacles to a government's functioning effectively."

And it is not just Israel that is taking the wrong course.

"Knowing that Hamas would inherit a bankrupt government, U.S. officials have announced that all funding for the new government will be withheld, including what is needed to pay salaries for schoolteachers, nurses, social workers, police and maintenance personnel," noted Carter "So far they have not agreed to bypass the Hamas-led government and let humanitarian funds be channeled to Palestinians through United Nations agencies responsible for refugees, health and other human services."

The former president offers a dose of realism when he concludes that: "This common commitment to eviscerate the government of elected Hamas officials by punishing private citizens may accomplish this narrow purpose (of limiting the ability of the new government to function), but the likely results will be to alienate the already oppressed and innocent Palestinians, to incite violence, and to increase the domestic influence and international esteem of Hamas. It will certainly not be an inducement to Hamas or other militants to moderate their policies."

Don't hold your breath waiting for the Bush-Cheney administration to do the right thing. But it would be encouraging if Carter's Democratic Party, the supposed opposition force in American politics, would embrace the wisdom of a former president whose commitment to easing tensions on the planet earned him the Nobel Peace Prize that will ever elude the current occupants of the White House. Unfortunately, most Democrats in Congress are, in all-too-predictable fashion, echoing an administration line that is as dangerous as it is foolhardy.

Corporate Control of Ports Is the Problem -- UPDATED

The problem with the Bush administration's support for a move by a United Arab Emirates-based firm to take over operation of six major American ports -- as well as the shipment of military equipment through two additional ports -- is not that the corporation in question is Arab owned.

The problem is that Dubai Ports World is a corporation. It happens to be a corporation that is owned by the government of the the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, a nation that served as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of 9-11 attacks, and that has stirred broad concern. But, even if the sale of operational control of the ports to this firm did not raise security alarm bells, it would be a bad idea.

Ports are essential pieces of the infrastructure of the United States, and they are best run by public authorities that are accountable to elected officials and the people those officials represent. While traditional port authorities still exist, they are increasing marginalized as privatization schemes have allowed corporations -- often with tough anti-union attitudes and even tougher bottom lines -- to take charge of more and more of the basic operations at the nation's ports.

In the era when the federal government sees "homeland security" as a slogan rather than a responsibility, allowing the nation's working waterfronts to be run by private firms just doesn't work. It is no secret that federal authorities have failed to mandate, let alone implement, basic port security measures. But this is not merely a federal failure; it is, as well, a private-sector failure. The private firms that control so many of the nation's ports have not begun to set up a solid system for waterfront security in the more than four years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. And shifting control of the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia -- along with control over the movement of military equipment on behalf of the U.S. Army through the ports at Beaumont and Corpus Christi -- from a British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., to Dubai Ports World, is not going to improve the situation.

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Unfortunately, the debate has been posed as a fight over whether Arab-owned firms should be allowed to manage ports and other strategic sites in the U.S. Media coverage of the debate sets up the increasingly ridiculous Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff -- who babbles bureaucratically about how, "We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint" -- against members of Congress -- who growl, as U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, did over the weekend about the need "to guard against things like infiltration by al-Qaida or someone else,"

There are two fundamental facts about corporations that put this controversy about who runs the ports in perspective.

First: Like most American firms, most Arab-owned firms are committed to making money, and the vast majority of them are not about to compromise their potential profits by throwing in with terrorists.

Second: Like most American firms, Arab-owned firms are more concerned about satisfying shareholders than anything else. As such, they are poor stewards of ports and other vital pieces of the national infrastructure that still require the constant investment of public funds, as well as responsible oversite by authorities that can see more than a bottom line, in order to maintain public safety -- not to mention the public good of modern, efficient transportation services.

Cheney Again

Jane Mayer's got a whopping-good piece in the latest New Yorker detailing the frustrated crusade of one Alberto J. Mora to stop the institutionalization of torture by Bush administration officials.

No cappuccino-sippin' liberal, Mora – the son of Hungarian and Cuban refugees-- was the Navy's chief legal advisor. He's also an honest and humane patriot who was disgusted and alarmed – long before anyone heard of Abu Grhraib -- by the way the U.S. military was treating its prisoners.

Much to his credit, and elevating him far above the moral gnomes who generally populate the upper echelons of the administration, Mora drew no distinction between plain cruel and sadistic treatment of prisoners and outright torture. On this subject, he wasn't willing to split hairs (or for that matter to break shinbones, smash jaws or cause organ failure).

Unfortunately his prolonged effort to reel in his own Pentagon ran smack dab into – yes you guessed it--other legal advisors in the administration who were more loyal to Dick Cheney than to constitutional and international law.The long and short of it, is that Mora was straight-out lied to by the administration. While he was being told that policy was being re-shaped to accommodate his protests against abuse, the administration was secretly authorizing the use of torture.Make sure you read Mayer's entire story. It will leave you numb.

A Report From The Frontlines Of American Poverty

In these last couple days, I've been blogging about the shameful fact that America's minimum wage hasn't risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. That means millions of Americans cannot meet their bills even working 2-3 jobs.

If you want to read a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking article about the human face of growing poverty in this rich country, read Paul Harris's dispatch in The Guardian. Harris reports from the hills of Kentucky, Detroit's streets, the Deep South of Louisiana and the heartland of Oklahoma. What he finds is not the failure of the poor, but the failure of our system.

The next time some morally obtuse politician starts talking YOYO language--"You're On Your Own"--or preaches the need to take personal responsibility and pulls out that bootstrap stuff, make them read this article. It is a stark reminder that, as Harris reports, "even families with two working parents are often one slice of good luck--a medical bill or a factory closure--away from disaster."

These are times when the gap between the haves and have-nots in America has widened, when 37 million of our fellow citizens live in poverty (that's 12.7% of population--the highest percentage in the developed world), and each year more are added to the poverty rolls. (Under Bush, an additional 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line.)

Yet, poverty is, for all essential purposes, off the radar of America's political landscape. Maybe it's because there are too many outrages to wake up to every morning? Maybe it's because the poor have no lobbyists and don't have the money to make campaign donations?

During the 2004 elections, as The Guardian article reminds, John Edwards raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years. And even then, he had to mute his passion and words once he became the vice-presidential candidate. So it's heartening that Edwards, in these last months, has retrieved his focus and passion and launched a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." (For more, check out Bob Moser's fine Nation profile) He's created a think tank at the University of North Carolina, The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity," designed to tackle the nation's deep and abiding economic and racial inequities, and taken his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states.

Edwards isn't alone. There are movements which continue to work hard, with too little support or attention; there are also less prominent political figures. But what we need is a critical mass of elected representatives, at all levels. Make this issue a campaign. Don't just talk the talk, but really work to fulfill the oft-proclaimed promise of America as a land of opportunity for all. Begin by fighting tooth and nail to increase the minimum wage. Shame on those who refuse to pass it. And then let's support the successful living wage movement, and the anti-poverty movements and coalitions working in our communities and nation-wide.

These are just a few things that could be done. I am sure others have better ideas and a clearer understanding of political strategy. What is clear is that addressing the deep and growing poverty in this nation may be the greatest moral-values issue of our time.

The Worst President Ever?

In commemoration of President's Day, I dug up a December column by noted presidential biographer Richard Reeves entitled, "Is George Bush the Worst President--Ever?"

Turns out 415 historians were recently asked by George Mason University to answer that question. And 50 replied that yes, Bush was, while over 80 percent said that W was failing at his job.

Generally speaking, Reeves says James Buchanan, our 15th president, usually earns the worst ever distinction, as "a confused, indecisive president, who may have made the Civil War inevitable by trying to appease or negotiate with the South."

Taking a more modern view, The Nation wrote following Ronald Reagan's death:

 

Until the current occupant side-stepped into the White House, Reagan was the worst American leader since Herbert Hoover.

 

This debate, however, will likely not be settled for quite some time. As Reeves notes, there are other figures in the White House who deserve equal blame:

 

Many of the historians note that however bad Bush seems, they have indeed seen worse men around the White House. Some say Buchanan. Many say Vice President Dick Cheney.

 

And that was before he shot a man in the face.

"He Ain't Kinky, He's My Governor."

In this era of ever-more-cautious electioneering, when consultants counsel contenders to stick to the safe, narrow and drab on the warped theory that the lowest common denominator is dull, the art of political sloganeering has hit something of a dry spell.

It may well be that the last really great -- or, at least memorable -- slogan was the one used by supporters of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, a man who had faced more than his share of corruption charges, in a 1991 contest with nuevo-Klansman David Duke: "Vote for the Crook. It's Important!"

But 2006 will be different. Country singer and novelist Kinky Friedman's campaign for governor of Texas has already produced the best bumpersticker slogan that the American political landscape has seen in years: "He Ain't Kinky, He's My Governor."

Friedman's also got the best counter to the Bush administration's failed education initiatives. A campaign t-shirt declares: "No Teacher Left Behind."

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Running as an independent who must petition his way onto the fall ballot (his campaign is gearing up to collect signatures from more than 45,540 registered voters beginning March 8), Friedman's pitching a serious set of progressive education, health care and energy policy reforms. Two separate polls released in recent days have Friedman garnering around 10 percent support, behind the ridiculous incumbent, Rick Perry, and his chief challenger, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn -- a Democrat turned Republican who is now running as an independent with the support of her youngest son, embattled White House spokesman Scott McClellan -- but quite close to overtaking the two Democrats who are trying to mount campaigns. (Perry, who inherited his job when George W. Bush was handed the presidency by the U.S. Supreme Court, may yet prove to be vulnerable. A recent Dallas Morning News poll found that, when asked to name the governor's most important accomplishment during five years in office, 70 percent could not think of anything.)

Even as his campaign gains the sort of attention and support that often causes candidates to put their personalities on hold, the man who once fronted the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys can be counted on to keep the Texas race worth watching. His campaign manifesto -- which begins by announcing: "Why the hell not?Texas politics stinks" -- makes that clear. "Texans are the most independent people in America, and if we're going to be inspired, the inspiration will come from someone unafraid to deal in new ideas and honest answers, an independent leader who lets the people call the plays instead of dancing to the tune of the money men," it explains. "That kind of leader is never going to look or sound like a politician. He won't steer by image polls, speak in hollow phrases approved by focus groups, or show up in hand-tailored suits."

For the record, Kinky wears blue jeans (faded), a black shirt (untucked), black books (slightly muddied), a black cowboy hat (beaten up a bit) and a Montecristo No. 2. cigar (ever present).

Happiness Means... Being At That Stones Concert In Rio

There's this Pew report out about happiness. (Don't you think that the very idea of quantifying happiness threatens it?) The report explains how happiness correlates with religiosity, marriage and wealth. My definition of happiness, as of midnight Sunday, in arctic New York City: On the beach in Rio, one of thousands, listening to Mick in that extraordinary, free Stones concert.

California Going Indie?

"California voters are shedding their identification with the two major political parties so rapidly that if current trends continue, independent voters could outnumber Democrats and Republicans in the Golden State by 2025."

That's a pretty bold statement coming from David Lesher and Mark Baldassare writing in this past Sunday's L.A. Times.

Whether or not they're over-stating a trend, these two guys are definitely onto something here. The drift away from partisan party-identified politics can go a long way to explain what some think the inscrutable quirkiness of Kahllyfornia voters (as a certain Governor would say).

The independent trend noted in the Times piece has been underway for more than a decade. Today almost 20% -- about 3 million registered California voters--have categorized themselves as "independent" or "decline to state." And these are, by far, the fastest growing sectors of the state electorate. Almost 80% of new registration falls into these categories. Nor does this burgeoning group fit neatly into a liberal or conservative box. Lesher and Baldassare write:

Polls show that about 60% of California independents favor tougher environmental regulations over economic growth, support a ban on offshore oil drilling and believe that global warming is a serious problem. Independent voters are also among the strongest supporters of such social innovations as medical marijuana use, assisted suicide for the terminally ill, the morning-after pill and hybrid automobiles. They back gay and lesbian marriage by a 20-point margin and a woman's right to abortion by 3 to 1.

At the same time, independents are largely responsible for keeping Proposition 13's anti-tax feelings alive. Most say they believe that government "wastes a lot of taxpayer money" and that Proposition 13 was a "good thing," according to the institute's surveys. Philosophically, independents split from Democrats by favoring smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Still, an institute poll in January found independents supporting more money for education and health programs as well as proposed ballot measures to generate funds for healthcare and preschool.

Kinda complex, eh? One thing we know for certain from this info – as well as from recent election cycles – Republicans can't win statewide in California if they run too far to the right and alienate this vast swing constituency. But what is the lesson here for progressives? Is running as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" the way to fire up these voters? Or are they looking for something new that transcends the current paradigm?