The Nation

It Would Cost Just 5 Cents More Per Plane Ticket to Get Airport Catering Workers Some Decent Healthcare

an airport catering worker loads drinks onto a plane

Frontier Airlines catering agent Silvana Holt brings a cart of drinks onto a plane before takeoff at the Denver airport, August 27, 2009. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

On top of all the obscure extra fees that get heaped onto your already overpriced plane ticket, you might be getting an unexpected discount—a single nickel saved on every airfare. That’s how much extra it would theoretically cost to provide a decent healthcare plan to thousands of airline catering workers. An extra five cents a ticket, according to their union, could ensure that the person who prepares your reheated pasta tray doesn’t sneeze on your butter pats because she can’t afford to see a doctor.

Hundreds of catering workers represented by UNITE HERE marched in Washington, DC yesterday to demand access to decent health insurance that will help them stay healthy, do their job safely, and avoid falling further into poverty. Representing some 12,000 airline catering workers with major contractors like Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs, the union is calling on the big airlines to build into their supply chain the cost of decent healthcare, which they calculate as roughly five cents per ticket, to be passed down to workers to offset insurance costs.

According to a national survey of airline catering workers, over 40 percent of catering service workers—who handle meal preparation, processing and logistics at airports across the country—earn less than $10.10 per hour. That’s well below a living wage in many of the cities where major airports are located (and less than the minimum wage repeatedly proposed by the Obama administration to bring the base wage closer to 1960s levels). According to UNITE HERE, extremely low wages leave workers “unable to pay the premiums of so-called ‘minimum value plans,’ [those complying with federal mandates] but ineligible to purchase more affordable options from health care exchanges.”

Despite the introduction of Obamacare, precarious airline catering workers have fallen into an insurance black hole. Though they are unionized, many earn just above the threshold to qualify for a federal subsidy, so they may end up getting penalized for being unable to afford the prohibitive cost of a $120-a-month plan with a deductible that effectively prices them out of needed services.

Los Angeles-based food service worker Manuel Valdovinos earns just enough to afford care this year, but says he now owes a $300 federal fine because he couldn’t afford to buy insurance last year. “I had to get a second job just to cover the basic expenses,” he tells The Nation. “And the IRS feels that I owe them money, for not being able to afford it [last year]….What my second job is giving me, I’m basically giving it away in healthcare.”

The workers’ dilemma reflects an ongoing controversy over companies seeking to circumvent Obamacare’s mandate for employer-sponsored health coverage, by pushing workers onto the exchanges. Despite regulatory checks against “dumping” sick workers onto exchanges, many low-income workers may get stuck with inadequate coverage and unaffordable premiums.

UNITE HERE workers complain that the healthcare crisis reflects the broader decline of pay and benefits since economic turmoil has rocked the aviation industry in recent years. But now that business has been improving, workers say their paychecks continue to lag behind rising profits. As airlines outsource jobs to service companies, the outsourcing system creates structural pressure on vendors to drive down the cost of wages and benefits. So the union is targeting aviation giants like American Airlines, which they say are hoarding profits and in turn suppressing pay scales for workers down the production chain.

The economic insecurity workers experience is aggravated by a relentless drive toward more “efficient” production. According to the union’s surveys, under a so-called “lean production” system, the majority of workers surveyed reported being squeezed to produce more with fewer staff, driven to work faster and take on extra hours, and often being subjected to strict time monitoring. Many experience health impacts like mental stress and repetitive motion injury, and “Sixty percent of the workers currently take pain medication…due to muscular aches and back pains.”

Cruz Peña of Miami, who has worked for Sky Chefs for 25 years, tells The Nation that the company used to take better care of workers, “but after 9/11, all that changed. They started to lower our wages, now they’re always pushing basically one person to do the job of two or three people.”

Now she is paying hundreds of dollars a month for a health plan that doesn’t cover the services she needs, and the combination of inadequate care and unlivable wages is exacerbated by the physical toll her job takes. “From all the years I have been working at this job, I have a bad back, I have a lot of pain,” she says, but “it’s not easy for me to get that treated.”

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The healthcare campaign is part of UNITE HERE’s push to mobilize airport operations workers. Along with SEIU, UNITE is reaching into this historically marginalized industry with various campaigns to mobilize airport operations workers in low-wage sectors like baggage, custodial and concession services. In cities like New York and Chicago, these workers, disproportionately people of color, are reportedly extremely vulnerable to wage theft and workplace safety hazards.

In response to the healthcare campaign, Sky Chefs says in an e-mailed statement that since many budget factors determine vendors’ meal costs, “There is no way that we can evaluate the claim that a five cent increase in ticket costs would equal a specific amount of revenue or that additional revenue would flow through to our company or others in our field.” Still, the company says it supports “negotiating in good faith to reach a fair and equitable contract.”

Regardless of the exact numbers, the UNITE HERE campaign works like the penny-per-pound campaign for tomato harvesters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The nickel-per-ticket concept is a strategic demand to force passengers, contractors and airlines to recognize the role major carriers play in determining labor conditions across the supply chain.

With all the fees tacked onto your airfare for your carry-on and every inch of leg room, just think: spending an extra few pennies to keep the person who made your lunch out of the emergency room today just might be the best deal in the business.

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Why the Disturbingly Sane Voices at CPAC Should Scare You

Scott Walker at CPAC

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at CPAC in National Harbor, Md., February 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

I’ve been covering the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, on and off for more than a decade. I’ve seen it in full jingoistic flower early in George W. Bush’s administration, when attendees could buy bumper stickers than said “No Muslims = No Terrorists” and hurl beanbags at toy trolls holding signs that said “The Homosexual Agenda” or “The Liberal Media.” I’ve seen it during moments of despair, when conservatives realized that Republican leaders wouldn’t enact the entirety of their kamikaze agenda. But I have rarely seen it as slick and sunny as this year, and that scares me.

CPAC, for those lucky enough to be unacquainted, is the most important right-wing conference of the year, regularly drawing leading Republican politicians and aspirants. This year, all the likely Republican presidential candidates are here, including Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum. Perhaps because of that, there seems to have been a real effort to tone down the outrageousness. Poor Ann Coulter, once a reliable CPAC bomb-thrower, is nowhere on the program. There’s a conspicuous absence of Hillary Clinton nutcrackers and other Instagram-ready right-wing kitsch. Even Sarah Palin, who spoke Thursday night, was shockingly lucid and reasonable, devoting her remarks to the plight of veterans suffering overlong deployments, PTSD and backlogs at the VA.

Sure, there were moments of craziness—this is CPAC, after all. Scott Walker made headlines for saying, apropos of ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Donald Trump appeared before a jam-packed room and said some Donald Trumpish things. But the organizers seem to have made a concerted effort not to embarrass the Republican Party. They still don’t let the Log Cabin Republicans sponsor events, but there was little anti-gay rhetoric—even Ted Cruz framed his stance on gay marriage as a states rights issue rather than saying anything about one man and one woman.

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This is bad news. One of the essential weaknesses of the GOP is the gap between their extremist base and the broader electorate. Their candidates have to feed red meat to the former without repelling the latter. When they fail, whether with Palin in 2008 or Todd Akin in 2012, they lose. As long as they can put a patina of reasonableness over their reaction, they have a chance.


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There’s Only One Thing That Could Actually Get Bill O’Reilly in Trouble, and It’s Not Lying

Bill O'Reilly delivers his Talking Points monologue on February 20, 2015. (Fox News)

Why is it that when Brian Williams makes up war stories he loses his reputation and six months of his career, but when Bill O’Reilly spouts the same sort of chest-pounding bull, he ends up even tighter with his audience and his network?

It’s not as if O’Reilly’s fabrications were less outrageous than Williams’s. O’Reilly has claimed he was a heroic network correspondent in the “war zone” (meaning Buenos Aires) at the end of the Falklands war while his CBS colleagues were “ hiding” in a hotel. More Zelig-y than Williams, O’Reilly has repeatedly placed himself at the Florida front door of a shady figure in the investigation of JFK’s assassination just in time to hear the self-inflicted gunshot that ended the man’s life (when there’s a cascade of evidence that Bill was in Dallas at the time).

When Media Matters debunked O’Reilly’s claims to have seen four nuns “get shot in the back of the head” in El Salvador in 1981, he slickly skated away, saying he meant he had seen images of that slaughter and that “no one could possibly” misunderstand his sterling intentions. The latest of O’Reilly’s fairytales to fracture is that protesters bombarded him with rocks and bricks during the 1992 LA riots; not so, say colleagues who were there.

Not in spite of, but because of all this, O’Reilly’s TV ratings this week have surged, as fans rally to him and the curious tune in to see if the cable news giant will admit to even one substantial fib. Of course, he won’t. After countering the Falklands charges on Sunday with a misleading clip, he’s been brushing off the other charges as baseless political assaults from “liars,” “far-left zealots,” and “guttersnipes.”

Unlike NBC and the other networks, which at least aspire to fact-based reporting, it’s in Fox’s DNA to re-invent reality by massaging facts and destroying context, because, as Jon Stewart said, all that “matters to the right is discrediting anything that they believe harms their side.” One of the central tenets of Fox News is that conservative white men are under constant attack from the liberal media, and the O’Reilly flap, which was initially kicked off by Greg Grandin in The Nation and then David Corn in Mother Jones, fits that narrative all too well. (As Grandin and others point out, O’Reilly’s personal pufferies are the least of his reportorial sins.)

No matter how accurate the hits on O’Reilly’s false machismo are, they only make him seem more righteous to his audience. Liberal attacks on right-wing manliness—like pointing out the chicken-hawk status of Cheney & company—have no standing with Fox viewers. “O’Reilly has been given an opportunity to wage war against a phalanx of liberal media aggressors,” Gabriel Sherman writes in New York magazine. “This is what his audience expects.”

Is there nothing that could turn their audience away from them? Doesn’t Fox, like the rest of us, have an Achilles Heel?

Actually, they do, and it’s related to that tough-guy, manly-man act. Conservatives can bluster and bully like steroidal hysterics on any topic, but when they turn their scorn on an individual, usually younger, woman, they risk the ire of Christians, Republican women, and anyone with a working creep detector. As Sherman writes:

One indication that O’Reilly is waging a calculated media campaign is to compare his ferocious response to a true scandal with career-ending implications: the 2004 lawsuit by a Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris, who accused O’Reilly of having lurid phone sex. In my biography of Ailes, I reported how Ailes and Rupert Murdoch were furious at O’Reilly for creating the humiliating mess. Ailes instructed O’Reilly that if he spoke out in public, he was in danger of losing his show. Aside from a handful of muted comments, O’Reilly remained silent about the allegations. His ratings held, and O’Reilly hung on to his job.

Likewise, Rush Limbaugh was seen as pretty much invincible until he, too, attacked a younger woman. In 2012, he called the then–Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ”slut” for supporting mandated contraceptive insurance coverage. “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex,” he said. In return, he added, he wanted Fluke to post videos of her having sex “online so we can all watch.” Advertisers began to flee the show, to the point where, according to Media Matters’s Angelo Carusone, “the commercial viability of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program has collapsed and remains that way.”

From O’Reilly and Limbaugh to Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin and James O’Keefe (the GOP prankster whose plans to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat, and seduce her, in 2010, signaled his serious fade-out), sex and gender snafus appear to be one of the few reliable forms of white male kryptonite. You catch a right-winger making his sexual appetites overly vivid or venting them on an identifiable woman instead of an abstract policy, and boom!

That’s the burden of being “the Daddy Party,” and if it faces a “Mommy Party” headed by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it will be a particularly heavy one. If they launch a sexually aggressive campaign that backfires, they’ll surely feel victimized all over again.

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Until then, Bill O’Reilly is safe (contrary, I think, to Maddow’s take). He and his viewers are in this together. They need just a drop of plausible deniability (Bill couldn’t have lied—he showed us a tape!) to go on accepting his nightly rants. Part of Fox’s contract with conservative Americans is the right to think magically and to (as Karl Rove told Ron Suskind) “create our own reality.”

Bill can hear a magic gunshot. He can experience war in an upscale downtown neighborhood. He can get hit by make-believe bricks.

And, for now, he can Houdini himself out of all the traps he’s set for himself.

With Shutdown Looming, House Republicans Propose 3 More Weeks of Misery

US House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Remember when House Speaker John Boehner said he was “trying to get off to a fast start” in the new Republican-controlled Congress? Nearly two months in, the GOP has managed to take a few more votes to repeal Obamacare and force the Keystone XL pipeline. They put up an extreme anti-abortion measure, but had to swap it for another one at the last minute due to a revolt within the ranks.

Now, with hours to go until the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money, Republicans in the House are trying to find a way to drag out their battle to undo President Obama’s executive order on immigration enforcement, while avoiding a shutdown.

The House will vote Friday on a temporary measure to fund DHS for three more weeks. For obvious reasons, Republicans are wary about shutting down the agency that deals with terrorism and immigration while simultaneously freaking out about terrorism and immigration. But Boehner won’t abandon the wing-nut caucus and their quest to block “executive amnesty” via the appropriations process, either. The stopgap measure is an attempt to make everyone happy, though ultimately it only prolongs the misery.

On Friday morning the Senate easily passed a “clean” bill to fund DHS until September, with no language to block Obama’s orders. Still, leadership from both parties indicated they will support the House’s temporary funding measure if it passes in the interest of avoiding a shutdown. “I don’t know if they can pass the three-week bill. We would much prefer they do a full funding bill. But we’re not going to shut the government down,” Chuck Schumer, the vice chair of the Senate’s Democratic conference, said Friday on MSNBC. (There’s a small chance that even the temporary bill won’t pass the House. Democrats are whipping against it, which means that most Republicans will have to be on board.)

Passage of the stopgap measure would be undeniably good news for DHS employees who have been waiting to hear if they’ll be told to stay home on Monday (without pay) or come to work anyway (without pay). And yet it’s entirely possible that come March 19, when the temporary funding extension expires, federal employees will again find themselves back at the edge of the cliff, hostage to the House GOP.

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In order to keep up the fight against the immigration orders during the three-week grace period, House Republicans will seek a conference with the Senate in order to reconcile differences between the Senate’s “clean” funding bill and an already-passed House bill that axes Obama’s actions. But that’s a nonstarter for Senate Democrats, as minority leader Harry Reid made clear on Thursday. “We will not allow a conference to take place. It won’t happen,” he said on Thursday.

With a veto the sure fate of any bill that undoes the executive orders, there is no way the GOP hardliners can win legislatively. (The courts are another story.) Of course, Boehner could put an end to the circus immediately by putting a clean funding bill up for a vote in the House, where it would likely pass with support from Democrats. That’s what will happen eventually, anyway, as in other shutdown fights. But why rush?


Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on why the private immigration jail in Texas has sparked outrage among inmates

What Bill O’Reilly Really Did in El Salvador Was Worse Than Lying

Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor (Fox News)

What is worse? Bragging that you “covered” a war that you didn’t cover? Or “covering up” a war crime?

Judging by the firestorm that hit Bill O’Reilly last week, the US media (with the exception of HuffPo’s excellent Roque Planas) clearly thinks O’Reilly’s war-zone exaggerations are worse than his role in covering up, either intentionally or unwittingly, a massacre.

To recap: The massacre took place in El Salvador, in the small village of El Mozote near the Honduran border, on December 11, 1981. It was carried out by the US-created and -trained Atlacatl Battalion. Between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered.

New York Times journalist Ray Bonner was one of the first outsiders on the scene, having walked for days from Honduras to get to El Mozote. His report on the killing ran on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. That day, The Washington Post also published a front-page story by Alma Guillermoprieto, who arrived at El Mozote shortly after Bonner. Both stories were accompanied by photographs by Susan Meiselas.

The Reagan Administration went into damage-control mode. The White House was worried that reports of atrocities committed by its Salvadoran allies would jeopardize its plan to increase military assistance to the country. Bonner was especially targeted by administration officials, who pressured the Times to pull him from El Salvador (Reagan’s ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, called Bonner an “advocate journalist”). The details of that campaign can be found in Mark Danner’s New Yorker reporting, as well as his follow up book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The Times’ editor, AM Rosenthal, sided with Washington, pulling Bonner—who had been based in El Salvador and therefore knew the country—back to Washington. After working at Metro for a time, Bonner left the paper.

As this smear campaign was unfolding, O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.

O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.”

This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.

But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.

O’Reilly’s report aired on May 20, 1982. If he had investigated the El Mozote massacre—if he had even mentioned the El Mozote massacre—it might have kept the jackals off of Bonner. And that might have kept Bonner in El Salvador. And that would have provided the American public with an experienced reporter sending back information that might have had an impact in the debate over Reagan’s Central American policy. In turn, Bonner’s removal sent a message: Reporters, writes Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review, became “wary of provoking the embassy.” “If they can kick out a Times correspondent,” said one reporter, “you’ve got to be careful.” Apparently one Times journalist told Bonner, “’Im not going to get caught in the same trap that you did.”

O’Reilly’s Salvador segment isn’t just a sin of omission (not mentioning Mozote and thus burying the massacre). It is a sin of commission. Take a look at it. O’Reilly sounds as if he is reading a set of talking points drawn up for him by the White House. One of the key rhetorical strategies to dilute opposition to Reagan’s Central American policy—which would result in the escalation of three wars (in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and the deaths of over 300,000 civilians at the hands of US funded and trained allies—was to muddy the waters, and establish plausible deniability.

Indeed, the US embassy in El Salvador sent out a memo that concluded: “it is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote.” And here’s O’Reilly echoing the conclusion in his memoir: “I explained that while a scorched-earth policy was clearly in effect in remote village—the evidence was right there on tape—it was impossible to say just who was doing the scorching. Could be the muchachos [that is, the guerrillas], could be the government. The ninety-second package contained great video and a fairly impressive ‘on the scene in a very bad place’ stand-up by yours truly.”

Of course, it was not impossible: Bonner and Guillermoprieto did so under considerably more dangerous and difficult circumstances.

No matter. Bonner was out. O’Reilly, and Oreillyism (defined the transformation of journalism into a narcissistic, self-referential circus, a “stand-up” routine that has no referent in the real world) was in.

The piece I posted on O’Reilly’s reporting on February 9th got some attention, though not as much as David Corn’s and Daniel Schulman's follow-up, which framed the issue as all about Bill O’Reilly—was he exaggerating? Was he lying? Is water wet?

The controversy took off. But the El Mozote angle—the question as to why O’Reilly didn’t report on the massacre if that was his assignment—got completely, absolutely, disappeared from the debate (again, with the recent exception of Roque Planas’s piece).

The media focused exclusively on O’Reilly’s actions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands-Malvinas war (where he was sent after El Salvador). Cable news and Mother Jones dug up old CBS staffers to “prove” that O’Reilly didn’t cover the actual war.

And after a few cycles, it’s not even about Argentina any longer. It’s about O’Reilly-Corn. The “charges aren’t sticking!” says Politico. David Corn “hangs up” on radio interviewer! O’Reilly “threatens.” Rachel Maddow “slams” O’Reilly. Corn says that “O'Reilly's ‘Violent’ Rhetoric Has My Friends and Family Worried.”

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Whatever the case, it is almost all over. Attention is drifting away. O’Reilly will survive and Oreillyism will abide. There are already reports that O’Reilly has vanquished Corn, from mainstream outlets as New York and Slate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to CBS staffers trying to pin down the specifics of O’Reilly’s quick trip to El Salvador. In particular, I’d like to locate his cameraman and/or the producer for the piece. Here are the questions I’d ask:

Why, if Bill O’Reilly was sent to investigate the El Mozote massacre, didn’t he go to El Mozote?

Was he briefed by the US embassy? By the US ambassador?

Did O’Reilly talk to anyone other than Salvadoran soldiers?

Did he ever try to speak with Ray Bonner or Alma Guillermoprieto?

At what point did O’Reilly decide to make the story about Meanguera rather than El Mozote?

Did O’Reilly try to find the whereabouts of Rufina Amaya, the lone survivor of the massacre, who, hiding in a tree, watched the soldiers rape, execute, and burn alive her neighbors? (The Reagan administration and the Salvadoran government went after Amaya, disputing her testimony. But Amaya’s version of events was confirmed by both an exhumation and a UN truth commission investigation. “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me,” Amaya heard her son cry from her hideout).

Eric Engberg, a longtime CBS correspondent who was in Buenos Aires during Malvinas-Falklands War and who has helped expose O’Reilly’s many distortions regarding that episode, tells me that O’Reilly was arrogant, “lazy,” and “stupid”—pretty much all the qualities on display in the El Salvador segment. It was a “very weak piece,” in Engberg’s opinion—it “made no sense.”

But Engberg doesn’t think O’Reilly was motivated by politics. He “lacked any political sophistication.” Central America, Engberg says, wasn’t an important story—it was a place that greenhorn reporters were sent. But it was exactly because Central America wasn’t important that O’Reilly could get away with the kind of insipid story he filed. I suspect Engberg is right. O’Reilly’s conservative “politics” always seemed like a shtick to me—a much better career move than (mis)reporting on massacres in Central America.

But maybe we can take l'affaire O’Reilly-Corn as a lesson: the kind of contentless “critique” launched on O’Reilly doesn’t challenge Oreillyism. It fulfills Oreillyism.


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Stephen Cohen: A ‘High Noon’ Moment for Ukraine

Ukrainian army vehicle

A Ukrainian military vehicle is seen through a ruined building on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk in August 2014. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Is a federated state the only possibility for peace in Ukraine? The Nation’s Stephen Cohen thinks so, and he joined The John Batchelor Show on Tuesday to explain why.

On the show, Cohen and Batchelor discussed the latest developments in this month’s “Minsk II” negotiations. Cohen addressed NATO Deputy Commander Sir Adrian Bradshaw’s comment that the West should expect a Russia attack on a NATO member state, and also explained why he supports the current proposal for a Ukrainian federation. “I just don’t see why anyone who doesn’t have a primary agenda against Russia fails to understand that’s the only way to peace,” Cohen said.

—Abigail Savitch-Lew

Read Next: Why diplomacy is the only answer to Ukraine’s problems

Hold It Right There: Teapot Dome Belongs to the People!

The Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming

A postcard, circa 1922, picturing Wyoming's Teapot Rock (Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)

The news that ownership of the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming recently passed from public to private hands for the first time in American history has been greeted with a collective shrug. That response befits the nation Gore Vidal renamed, late in life, with painful aptness, the United States of Amnesia. Yet one might have hoped that the sale would at least have picked a little at the scar tissue covering what was once, before Watergate, one of the sorest wounds the legitimacy of the US government had ever received. Instead, Politico’s anxiously reassuring headline about the transfer, “Government sells Teapot Dome—on the level, this time,” sums up so much about our relationship, in 2015, with the American past.

Exactly a century ago, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson withdrew the oil-rich lands around Teapot Rock in central Wyoming and assigned them to serve as reserves for the Navy. After World War I, the Navy transferred them to the Department of the Interior, headed in the administration of Warren Gamaliel Harding by one Albert Fall. In an ominous fit of Rahm-like privatization, Fall leased the lands to oil companies on the cheap, without soliciting competing bids.

So far, so good, at least according to the rules of the wheel-‘em-deal-‘em pre-1933 capitalism to which our own captains of industry are so desperate to return. But where Fall erred was in accepting bribes from the companies amounting to several millions of dollars, adjusted for inflation. It took a few years—and the Pulitzer Prize–winning efforts of unjustly forgotten investigative reporter Paul Y. Anderson, then of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, later the longtime Washington correspondent for The Nation—but eventually Fall was convicted of bribery and became the first (until Nixon’s Attorney-General John Mitchell, the only) former Cabinet-level official to go to prison.

In October 1927, when the Supreme Court declared the lease of Teapot Dome void, as it had been “procured by corruption,” The Nation ran an editorial, “Calling Men By Their Rightful Names,” applauding the Court for acknowledging the crooks for what they were: “faithless Americans who cheated and betrayed their country in order to line their pockets.”

“The deep significance of this goes far beyond the recovery of the oil lands,” the editorial continued. “This is the final triumph of the movement to purge the government” of corruption. “Not only do the mills of the gods continue to grind exceeding fine; the spirit of revolt cannot be downed.”

“The Multimillionaire Goes Free,” read The Nation’s editorial the following spring, when Harry F. Sinclair, one of the oil magnates who had bought off Fall, was acquitted.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic men and women…are declaring that it is settled that there are two kinds of justice—one for the rich, one for the poor. They are right, and their knowledge of this fact will do more harm to American institutions than all the soap-box orators who may be preaching a radical change in our form of government in the streets of our cities. Destroy faith in the equality of all men before the courts, and you go far toward toppling the government.

Back in government hands, the Teapot Dome field sat dormant until the 1970s, when oil production resumed and the Navy transferred title to the Department of Energy. Since 1976, drilling on the land has plugged more than $569 million into government coffers, and for awhile at least, the oil was being sold at suspiciously familiar below-market prices.

Then, late last month, the Energy Department announced that it had sold Teapot Dome for $45.2 million to Stranded Oil Resources, a company that specializes in shooting carbon dioxide to loosen up the last little bits of petroleum left in the ground.

“By targeting historic properties with known characteristics,” Stranded’s CEO said, “we reduce the uncertainty and risk generally associated with oil exploration.”

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The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, some guy once said; it’s what’s legal. A corollary for the twenty-first century: the real scandal is that what “faithless Americans” used to have to do illegally has been reframed as ho-hum and above-board.

It’s probably too late, but some earnest, reckless public-interest lawyer ought to try to sue to keep Teapot Dome in the public hands. The National Park Service could build a museum about the history of what we’re endlessly assured is only corruption of an otherwise healthy body politic. It could open in 2022, on the centennial of public disclosure of Fall’s deals. Maybe President Hillary Clinton would cut the ribbon.

(As it happens, the Nation editorial of October 1927 applauded the progressives’ determination, a year before the presidential election, “to do their uttermost to prevent the nomination of another Harding ready to put criminals in the Cabinet, or of another Coolidge ever ready servilely to lick the boots of Big Business.”)

The deep significance of this goes beyond the recovery of the oil lands. Where are those soap-box orators?

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on how U.S. torture programs have not yet evolved since the war in the Philippines.

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 2/27/15?

Keystone March

Demonstrators march during a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Queen Arsem-O’Malley focuses on grassroots labor organizing, youth-led social movements, anti-carceral feminism, and critiques of mainstream media.

Scary Negroes with Guns,” by Messiah Rhodes. The New Inquiry, February 23, 2015.

In a powerful personal essay, Messiah Rhodes explores his relationship to guns as a Black man in America, and America's obsession with the gun—real or imagined—in Black hands: “These dream guns indicate the depth of white America’s fear of black resistance.... Black people can be trained to protect our national security, to be snipers, to be killers, yet if we attempt to protect ourselves from a history of violent white supremacy, we become enemy combatants.”

Avi Asher-Schapiro focuses on US foreign policy, politics in the Middle East and South America, and technology issues.

Bogus university graduates clog Iraqi job market,” by Adnan Abu Zeed. Al-Monitor, February 24, 2015.

Considering America’s long-term military involvement in Iraq, and the growing popular obsession with ISIS, there’s surprisingly little available in English about the country’s internal political and social scene. This piece from the Iraqi journalist Adnan Abu Zeed covers the widespread corruption among Iraq’s ruling class: there’s a glut of unemployed overeducated Iraqis with graduate degrees, but many still struggle to secure government jobs because the most coveted positions are sold to well-connected elites with bogus inflated credentials.

Cole Delbyck focuses on LGBT politics, East Asia and representational issues in film and television.

Transgender Crimea,” by Dimiter Kenarov. The Huffington Post, January 31, 2015.

Through the eyes of a young trans man named Pasha, Kenarov beautifully renders the experience of LGBT refugees within the context of the Russian-Ukraine crisis. History has shown the direct relationship between political instability and anti-LGBT sentiments, which force many to abandon their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Paralleling Pasha’s own transition into a man with the evolving identity of Ukrainian citizens, Kenarov ends the article with a powerful statement: “In a sense, everybody in Ukraine was now trans.”

Khadija Elgarguri focuses on MENA issues including women’s rights, the relationship between foreign policy and cultural change, and women’s roles in protest movements in the region.

What Was Missing from Obama's Anti-Terrorism Speech.” The Real News, February 23, 2015.

In this interview, academic and author Vijay Prashad describes Obama’s speech at the DC summit addressing global terrorism as “only half right.” Prashad acknowledges Obama’s point of the responsibility of Muslim scholars and clerics to push back against ISIS rhetoric and propaganda, but says the president failed to address the “issue of Western intervention in the Middle East” by ignoring the role the US and its ally Saudi Arabia have played in “fomenting the birth of the Islamic State.” In light of the US’s widening military role in the region, Prashad’s emphasis on foreign policy and geopolitics, not religion, as the root cause of terrorism in the Mid East region is worth noting.

Benjamin Hattem focuses on Israel/Palestine and the broader Middle East, as well as economic inequality, homelessness, and the prison system.

Some Unions Think Supporting Keystone XL Was A Mistake?” by Kate Aronoff. Vice News, February 18, 2015.

Here’s a look at the growing collaborations between labor unions and climate justice advocates and how those connections have developed through labor’s changing stance on the Keystone XL pipeline. It's an important dynamic at work underneath the ongoing fight over the pipeline.

Nadia Kanji focuses on foreign policy, political art & alternative economic structures.

Isis has provoked an Arab alliance to bomb the West’s enemies,” by Robert Fisk. The Independent. February 16, 2015.

In America’s war against ISIS, Fisk describes how the US has found its allies in the Middle East to help do its dirty work. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Libya’s Khalifa Hafter, and many of the GCC countries are bombing ISIS fighters, and feeling the brunt of the effects. As Fisk points out however, for Arabs the message is very clear: “Washington has an American-trained general in charge of the Libyan air force, an American-trained former field marshal and president in charge of Egypt, [and] an American-educated and British-trained king in Jordan…in the battle.”

James F. Kelly focuses on labor, economic inequality, world politics and intellectual history.

Working Anything but 9 to 5,” by Jodi Kantor. The New York Times, August 13, 2014.

Starbucks relies on software to manage the scheduling of its employees, making use of an intricate web of sales patterns and other data to distribute labor in the most profit maximizing way possible. This article lets readers into the lives of parents struggling to raise their children when faced with unpredictable shifts that sometimes require them to work until 11 PM and return the next day at 4 AM. This is just one example of how the logic of our economy fractures social relations in the sacred pursuit of profit, but if you ask Charles DeWitt of Kronos (the company that supplies the software), “It’s like magic.”

Ava Kofman focuses on technology, popular science and media culture.

New survey reveals everything you think about freelancing is true,” by David Uberti. Columbia Journalism Review, February 17, 2015.

For anyone who has freelanced––and attempted to get compensated for their time, expenses, and creative labor—many of these statistics are familiarly depressing. And it’s freelance investigative reporting, often funded out of journalists’ own pockets due to the dismal slashing of expense budgets, that has taken the hardest hit. “Ninety-three percent of those surveyed said they’d be interested in joining some sort of freelancer collective.” So what are we waiting for? Let's unite.

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Abigail Savitch-Lew focuses on urban policy, labor and race.

The Complexities of Black Community Control of Police,” by Glen Ford. Black Agenda Report, February 11, 2015.

Glen Ford, founder of the Black Agenda Report, looks at the landscape of reforms that have emerged in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, from police body-camera legislation to Newark Mayor Baraka’s proposed Civilian Complaint Review Board. Ford concludes that we need nothing short of black communities seizing control of policing in their neighborhoods. I wonder if his call for principles of “self-determination” will be better received by millennials, thanks to our familiarity with identity politics, than it was in the post-civil rights period.

Hilary Weaver focuses on reproductive rights, feminism and related political, health and education issues.

Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women,” by Amanda Marcotte. Slate, February 23, 2015.

Monday morning brought an onslaught of responses (including a blog post from The Nation’s Dave Zirin) after Patricia Arquette’s Oscars backstage comments concerning equal pay for women. Marcotte’s piece takes an especially holistic look at how Arquette’s comments, which failed to address issues of intersectionality, could affect women not included in the category of white-middle-class feminist. Public forums are powerful platforms, Marcotte says; it’s best to play it safe and keep responses simple before making sweeping, exclusive declarations.


Read Next: WhatNation interns were reading the week of 2/20/15

February 27, 2008: ‘National Review’ Editor William F. Buckley Dies

William Buckley and Ronald Reagan

William Buckley and Ronald Reagan on Reagan's birthday in 1986.

On this day in 2008, William F. Buckley, founding editor of National Review, passed from this life to the next. Yet even back in 1988, in a review of William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, by John Judis, rabble-rouser Robert Sherrill had already suggested that Buckley no longer walked among the living (“Squire Willie,” June 11, 1988). When Nation editor Victor Navasky asked Sherrill to do the review, Sherrill responded: “What I like about this assignment, it’s a good old-fashioned hatchet job.”

If it is true that the evil men do lives after them, William Francis Buckley can be assured a certain kind of immortality. Or perhaps it is going too far to say that he did evil. That is probably too active a word. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he lived off evil, as mold lives off garbage. The garbage he is particularly associated with is that which began accumulating in the right-wing alley about forty years ago: McCarthyism, which Buckley took part in by writing speeches for Senator Joe and by praising with majesterial cliches (“McCarthyism is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks”); and the long-forgotten manifestoes of the Young Americans for Freedom, a frenzied campus movement which he helped found in 1960; and his pious defense of the kooks of the John Birch Society as “some of the most morally energetic self-sacrificing and dedicated anti-Communists in America.” In those days Buckley lent his name—as adviser or supporter or officer—to virtually every major crackpot right-wing movement in America, and his ideological soulmates were a group that long ago were banished to history’s padded cell….

Today Buckley does not live off right-wing garbage or anything else because he is quite dead, and has been dead for at least fifteen years. At least that’s my theory. But because the right wing is so sentimentally attached to its old shills, Buckley has been put away in hypothermal storage in the hopes that medical science someday will be able to defrost him and reactivate his brain. Meanwhile, the pretense that Buckley lives is carried on from time to time through stories about him, or ghosted under his byline, in such mortuary trade journals as New York and The New York Times. As for the two-bit actor who plays Buckley on Firing Line, Lord knows he is a poor imitation, thinking he fills the part merely by uttering unintelligible gibberish through pursed lips while fiddling with pencil and clipboard.


February 27, 2008

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