News and Features
The lesson of fifteen years is that real change requires a people's movement.
He may have been screwed out of the election, but he's still a terrible candidate.
"Condit Country" is a bad enough slogan for
this agribusiness burg, yet, not satisfied with it, the city boosters
have also erected an arch across the main street. MODESTO, reads the
self-regarding inscription. WATER. WEALTH. CONTENTMENT. HEALTH. The
local Congressman is an embodiment of this narcissistic style, and of
the sort of Babbittry that accompanies it. Condit is always there,
when it comes to being photographed for a peach parade. He's always
there, on the House Agriculture Committee, when it comes to bills on
land and water rights. He's an irrigation ditch for the local
interests. His blond family--Carolyn, Cadee and Chad--is off a
cornflakes box. In common with his sometime friend and patron
Governor Gray Davis, Condit will make any political sellout his own
idea. Death penalty--yes. School prayer, public display of the Ten
Commandments, down with flag-burners and (now that you mention it)
let's reveal the names of people with AIDS.
Condit are, however, a dime a dozen in the Democratic Party, and I
was in a state of general agreement with Dan Rather when I first set
foot in the district. The disappearance of Chandra Levy had no
importance beyond itself; it was a tragedy only for her family.
Condit may have flirted with obstruction of justice by wasting the
time of the DC police, and with suborning perjury in asking Anne
Marie Smith to sign a false affidavit, but this was not on the
Clinton scale of abuse of power. Condit hadn't used the forces of the
state or mobilized large sums of public money in his battle to
insulate himself from unwelcome inquiries. What he has done has at
least been done on his own dime.
Thus I reasoned, idly,
until I got to the corner of 16th and H streets downtown, where
Condit has his headquarters. There wasn't much in the window, except
a banal poster enjoining one and all to say no to hate crimes and two
other exhibits. The first of these was a missing poster for Levy,
who, as is now notorious, disappeared a whole continent away in
Washington and is unlikely to be lurking in the greater Modesto area.
The second was a missing poster for a local girl named Dena Raley,
who has vanished in what the authorities call "suspicious
circumstances." I asked an experienced local if Congressman Condit
has always kindly displayed the posters for missing females in his
district office window. "Oh no," came the reply. "That's a new
I was at once seized with a powerful feeling of
disgust. Condit and his team of lawyers and publicists have been
saying unctuously for some time that they so much hope Chandra Levy
hasn't gone the way of all those other girls who go missing. "I pray
that she has not met the same fate," as Condit himself piously
phrased it in a letter to his constituents. The not-so-subtle message
is that life is unfair, whaddaya gonna do and don't look at me. But
to use the posters of the missing as an accessory in this fashion is
to take cynicism a stage further. I actually live in a place more or
less equidistant between Levy's old apartment in Dupont Circle and
Condit's oddly located pad in Adams Morgan, and I can tell you that
the disappearance of single females is not as everyday an occurrence
as some would have you think. I can also tell you that the Washington
Police Department is a laughingstock, as much among criminals as
among the law-abiding. It never called Dr. Levy back after he rang to
report his daughter missing in the first place, and when it says it
has no suspect in the case it really, really means it. It's a police
department that doesn't suspect anybody, and has for these many years
employed rather more crooks than it has managed to
The following night I watched Condit himself on
TV. Considering that our craven mass media had actually allowed him
to choose a lenient and unqualified interviewer, I thought that his
performance was not so much disastrous from a PR point of view (the
Dick Gephardt "take" on the matter) as calamitous from a moral one.
How incredible that he could say, not once but several times, that in
refusing to clarify the real nature of their relationship he was
honoring "a specific request from the Levy family," who had done no
more than tell another TV station that they were more concerned with
recovering their daughter than with discovering the details. How
contemptible! A man who will do this, and plainly rehearse to do it
with the assistance of the degraded professions of attorney and media
adviser, can be held to be capable of pretty much anything. The
squalor and shadiness of his other responses--alluding to Ms. Levy
repeatedly in the past tense, making out her family to be liars,
answering questions he wasn't asked, resorting to the word "we" when
he meant "I" ("we've taken a polygraph test," for Christ's sake) and
blaming his lawyers for a draft falsification submitted to Anne Marie
Smith--paled when set next to this one.
So I have changed
my mind, for what it's worth. By acting in this depraved way, by
managing to evoke only mild reproof from his party and by employing
the techniques of spin and "privacy" and procrastination when a
girl's life is in question, Condit has demonstrated something of
importance about our political class. Of course I don't know if poor
Chandra Levy went for an ill-advised ride on his motorbike, or
somebody else's. But after I had digested the Congressman's window
display, I walked over to the former Mel's drive-in, which is
featured in George Lucas's Modesto classic, American
An ancient Chevy stood next to a battered
Packard in the parking lot, Elvis was on the jukebox, girls served
from rollerblades and the slogan ("Where the food is as good as the
root beer") was roughly accurate. A leathered biker pushed past me as
I emerged from the "Poppa Bear" restroom. On the back of his jacket
he had inscribed the words: IF YOU CAN READ THIS--THE BITCH FELL OFF.
It wasn't the most callous remark I heard in Modesto: I had to sit
through Connie Chung to hear it surpassed.
If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.
As the crowded podium at the conservative Democratic Leadership Council's summer conference in Indianapolis illustrated, plenty of Democrats are prepared to steer the party even further right than Al Gore did in 2000. Among Democrats who are thinking presidential, there are too many buyers for the DLC's line that Gore's "people-versus-the-powerful" rhetoric was too populist. But as David Corn argues on page 11, the great mass of Americans, Democrats or Disenchanteds, buy the notion that the opposition to Bush must not just talk the people-versus-the-powerful talk but also walk the progressive populist walk.
At a moment when George W. Bush is doing everything in his power to illustrate the inability of conservatives to manage the affairs of state, there is a dramatic opening for progressives. This is a rare circumstance--following a contested election, with a bizarrely divided government--and it calls for bold approaches.
The point is not to pick a particular candidate. The point is to recognize that progressives must have a candidate in 2004, if only to free us from the constraints of a choice so narrowly defined as the 2000 Democratic primary pickings of Gore and Bill Bradley. That's the point Senator Russ Feingold, whose environmental advocacy and consistent critique of corporate free-trade policies have earned him a reputation as the Senate's "greenest" member, will try to make in coming months as he explores the prospects of a progressive presidential bid. "I'm worried sick about what's going to happen with Supreme Court nominations, trade policy, the environment, if we get eight years of Bush," says the Wisconsin Democrat. "But I'm also worried about the prospect that we could have four years of Bush and then four years of a DLC Democrat." Feingold knows his maverick style--he backed Attorney General John Ashcroft's nomination, he says, to defend the principle that a President, particularly a future progressive President, has a right to his appointees--could make the selling job difficult. But he takes comfort from the fact that another maverick, his campaign-finance-reform mate John McCain, shook things up in 2000. And, he adds, "I want to live in a country with a progressive President. I may not be that President, but I want people to start thinking now--not in two years, when it's too late--about how we get a progressive President."
Feingold should explore his chances. The same goes for Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, a fierce critic of NAFTA and US military adventurism, who has been to Iowa and soon will visit New Hampshire. "I want to get people thinking about these issues in the context of presidential politics," says Kaptur. Reverend Al Sharpton says that "progressive leadership is in a deep crisis at the moment in the Democratic Party"; he has asked Harvard professor Cornel West to head a presidential exploratory committee.
Progressives need not pick a 2004 candidate yet. But progressives do need to recognize, as conservative Democrats have, that now is the time to begin giving shape and substance to the opposition to Bush. Presidential nominations are no longer decided by a few primaries every fourth year; they are decided years earlier, as candidates begin to establish themselves. Feingold, who backed Gore in 2000 but refused to join the Democratic bashing of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, makes a case for a quick start when he says, "On the merits, Nader was right in a lot of what he said. My difference with him is that I think we need to make the fight inside the Democratic Party. And we need to start doing it now, not in January 2004."
Nine hundred days to go, and Democratic presidential hopefuls are jockeying for position.
President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security seems to be picking up steam, if his commission's recent report is any indication.
Representative Nancy Pelosi is poised to become Congress's most powerful woman.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
Maybe that Karl Rove ain't such a genius. In the past few weeks Democrats have, with a touch of glee, been wondering about George W. Bush's Svengali-strategist as Rove has stepped into several cow pies. Shortly after the Jeffords jump--for which Rove took his lumps--the Associated Press revealed that in March Rove met with senior Intel executives seeking federal approval of a merger of two chip manufacturers--at a time when Rove held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Intel stock as part of a portfolio worth $2 million. Rove claimed he had not discussed this particular matter and merely referred the Intel guys to others in the government. But if someone knocks on the door of a Bush Administration official and can say, "Karl sent me," does that not help the visitor? Several weeks later, the Justice Department OK'd the merger--and Intel politely sent a thank-you note to several Bushies, including Rove.
In addition to his ethics, Rove's judgment has been questioned, as his ham-handed role in contentious policy decisions has made the Bush White House appear as political as its predecessor--a tough task! On the campaign trail, Bush the Outsider blasted the Slickster in Chief for governing by polls and setting policy by focus groups. Yet Rove has pushed the Administration to oppose stem-cell research, which involves human embryos, to advance his plan to cement Catholic voters into the GOP bloc. And when Bush announced that the Navy would halt bombing practice on Vieques in Puerto Rico in 2003, angry Hill Republicans questioned Rove's crucial part in the decision and assailed him for placing politics above national security.
Other bad news for Rove: A much-ballyhooed (and front-page) New York Times/CBS poll in mid-June showed Bush's key numbers in decline. Have Bush's (anti-)environment stands and coziness with Big Bidness taken a toll? In other words, is Rove losing his knack?
The White House stood by him--for Rove is the White House--and quickly tried to douse the Rove/Intel story. "My level of confidence with Karl Rove," declared Bush, "has never been higher." White House press-spinner Ari Fleischer pooh-poohed the Rove matter, claiming, "The American people are tired of these open-ended investigations and fishing expeditions." How did he know? Did he take a poll? And how convenient for the GOP to gripe about free-for-all investigations now. Dan Burton, the conspiracy-chasing Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who investigated every speck of controversy hurled at the Clintons, is still pursuing the Clintonites, most recently by probing a nine-year-old prosecution in Florida that tangentially involves Janet Reno. In any event, when Fleischer made his statement, there was no Rove investigation under way. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on Burton's committee, had merely written Rove, asking him to answer six questions regarding his stock holdings and whether he had conducted meetings with representatives of other companies in which he owned stock, including Enron, the Texas energy company. (At press time, Waxman had yet to receive a reply.)
Perhaps Democratic senators--who, unlike Waxman, possess the power to initiate an investigation--ought to consider poking into Rove's finances and, more important, the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists at the White House. (Of course, the latter would invite similar questions about the Democratic Party.) Yet they have not pounced. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said publicly, "Democrats want to legislate, not investigate." But Waxman and Democratic Representative John Dingell have tried to push beyond the Rove/Intel episode. They asked the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, to examine the meetings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force and determine who--and what interests--helped shape the Bush energy plan.
Cheney's office balked. "We have not released a list of names so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to air [their] views publicly," explained Mary Matalin, a Cheney aide. Funny, Republicans weren't this respectful of privacy several years ago, when they demanded information about the proceedings of Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force. But few Democrats have raised a fuss about White House reluctance to release the information. The GAO, though, told Cheney he must comply with its request. And still Cheney has not turned over the material, setting up a potential clash.
The bloom may be off the Rove, but he's far from wilted. After all, Rove got a fellow widely derided as a boob into the White House, and then he guided a gigantic relieve-the-rich tax cut through Congress. Those are damn good first--if not last--laughs. Now Bush can also thank Rove (and Cheney) for helping to show that his White House is a down-home hoedown of corporate and political favoritism.