News and Features
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
Minnesota can be considered a veritable mecca for insurgent third parties. Its governor is maverick independent Jesse Ventura.
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge?
Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004
to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year.
Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny
Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The
Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols
wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the
potency of progressive politics in America."
Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and
enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his
direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than
the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many
Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to
hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming
about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and
Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American
religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May
18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics
actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination
fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa
could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000
in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona
LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to
run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts,
For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans"
charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at,"
he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a
shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm
not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably
get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you
Wellstone people can just calm down."
McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic
hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against
fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with
the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy,
remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his
chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the
country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to
extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan
regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last
year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate
seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He
never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health
care, campaign finance, or anything else."
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for
reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health
insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.
No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone
has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition
of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991
but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was
the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in
common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has
spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an
anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find
something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve
years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain
enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left,
even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In
the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national
coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he
mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together
an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic
one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in
his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the
Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding
efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies
to within three votes of passage in the Senate.
Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after
another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final
sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats
as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed.
He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National
Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a
lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync
with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own
accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be
appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America?
Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge
that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence
Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone
accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement,
then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some
supposed Green irresponsibility.
Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
September 11 is being used as a reason to build up police intelligence
Now that the Enron culprits have been caught red-handed, might not the media inquire of the President whether he takes any responsibility for nearly bankrupting California by refusing to come to
California GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. has portrayed
himself as a savvy businessman who can deal successfully with the
state's financial woes. But Simon's ties to Enron, the bankrupt energy
company that has been charged with manipulating the electricity market
in California and is under federal investigation, raise questions about
his business acumen and his fitness for the state's top post.
Former business associates of Simon say that he personally persuaded
Enron to invest in Hanover Compressor, a Houston company he founded in
1990 and on whose board he sat between 1992 and 1998. Hanover makes
pumps that move natural gas and oil through pipelines and from wells.
According to several people at Enron and Hanover involved in the
transaction, the Enron investment was made in 1995 through an Enron
partnership called Joint Energy Development Investments, or JEDI, which
is now at the center of the federal investigation into Enron's collapse.
Simon held a 1.4 percent stake in Hanover, which after the JEDI
investment was worth tens of millions of dollars. His father, William
Simon, the former energy czar and Treasury Secretary under Richard
Nixon, ran a private investment firm, William E. Simon & Sons,
which owns more than 4 percent of Hanover. The younger Simon declined
requests for an interview. He has previously dodged questions about his
relationship with Enron.
JEDI was at one time Hanover's second-largest shareholder, with an $84
million stake in the company, according to a Securities and Exchange
Commission filing. Last June, JEDI shifted most of its shares to another
off-balance-sheet Enron partnership. JEDI's stake in Hanover allowed the
Enron executives who managed JEDI to attend Hanover board meetings.
Hanover executives said Simon and Enron came up with several
Simon was also involved in Hanover in matters separate from the Enron
deals that could raise legal concerns. Hanover said in February that it
would have to restate its financial results beginning in January 2000
because of improper accounting for a partnership that--as with
Enron--made the company appear more profitable than it was. Over several
years during this time, according to the Wall Street Journal,
Hanover officers sold millions of shares of stock--again much like
Enron, where officers who were allegedly aware of the company's
accounting practices were encouraging employees and others to buy shares
even as they were selling their own. Hanover is now the target of at
least four class-action lawsuits by shareholders who have alleged the
company misled investors; and it is also under investigation by the SEC.
Simon wasn't a member of Hanover's board at the time of the improper
accounting, but a week before Hanover made the announcement, the company
reported that every annual report it has issued since going public in
1997 contained errors. Simon, as a member of Hanover's audit committee,
was responsible for approving the company's annual reports. The audit
committee, according to Hanover's investor relations department, was
held responsible by Hanover for the error.
Simon helped Hanover set up a partnership in the Cayman Islands, Hanover
Cayman Limited, as a tax shelter. In addition, he assisted Hanover in
setting up a joint venture with Enron and JEDI to construct a
natural-gas compression project in Venezuela.
Jamie Fisfis, Simon's campaign spokesman, said Simon has been
forthcoming about his business dealings with Hanover and Enron. But when
asked about JEDI's investment in Hanover and what role Simon played,
Fisfis said he did not know and would only confirm that Simon was a
member of the Hanover board at the time. Moreover, he could not offer an
explanation when asked about the other joint ventures with Enron that
Simon's former business associates said he had a hand in creating. Simon
has told reporters on the campaign trail that he was barely involved in
Hanover's business activities, but Hanover executives say Simon was
intimately involved during his six years on the board. When Simon left
the board in 1998, he sold most of his 430,000 shares in the company.
However, he still has more than $1 million invested in Hanover,
according to the Associated Press.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar of the University of Southern
California's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said Simon has
to start answering questions about his dealings with Enron, "whether it
be good or bad," or risk alienating voters. "The symbol that Enron has
become is negative, cheating and ruthless."
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Governor Gray Davis, who currently trails
Simon according to the latest polls, said Simon's close ties with Enron
pose questions about his track record: "For a man who touts himself as a
business manager, these types of activities raise questions whether
Campbell McGrath's entertaining and frustrating fifth book of poems--every single one of them devoted to some aspect of Florida--raises two large questions. One has to do with representations of that state; the other, with precision, personality and populism in poetry, and the relative value of each.
Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West for some years, called Florida "the state with the prettiest name," "the state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white"; Wallace Stevens saw in Florida's "venereal soil" an escape from intellection--though he came to find its fertility unnerving. Among living poets, William Logan, Tony Harrison and Michael Hofmann have all taught in Gainesville and written about it. Donald Justice described the Florida of his youth in such poems as "A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida." Dionisio D. Martínez evoked the state's lightning-prone flats in Bad Alchemy, while Karen Volkman skewered Miami in her much-anthologized "Infernal."
McGrath aims to capture in verse a Florida as disturbing as any of those, and far more comprehensive. His narrative, didactic, essayistic and lyric poems together try to depict the whole troubled state, a state that (in McGrath's view) cries out either for political action to set it on a new course or for an apocalypse to wash it all away. As in his celebrated Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), McGrath's models here include the Ginsberg of Howl; the Whitman of big catalogue poems like "A Song for Occupations"; crowd-pleasing comic poets like Billy Collins; and writers of the modern left--from Carl Sandburg to Martín Espada--who wish to tie locally oriented description to socioeconomic protest. McGrath offers, first, a ten-part narrative poem (based on Aristophanes' Birds) called "A City in the Clouds"; next, a group of short poems on subjects Floridian; last, a long verse-essay called "The Florida Poem." Though they share attitudes, topics and techniques, each section has to be judged on its own.
McGrath's narrative shows the rise, success and eventual fall of an airborne city built above Florida--one that bears remarkable resemblances to it. Readers of Aristophanes, or of the headlines, will know quickly what fate McGrath's cloud-folks face (or refuse to face): Seeking a carefree New World, the cloud-dwellers end up dependent on complex irrigation, McDonald's sandwiches, tourism, real estate speculation, overbuilt prisons and exploited noncitizen "laborers [who] were needed...to man the pumps for the earthward flow of water upon which their entire economy depended." Menaced by aerial alligators, then by failing machinery, the cloud-folks finally let the city collapse. The poem's most original moments are those closest to (prose) science fiction: In one, the cloud-dwellers haul up "whatever could be gathered at the ever-shifting terminal point where the wind-flexed elevator shaft met the ground."
Despite such descriptive energies, McGrath's cloud-poem lacks the verbal reliability we expect from most modern verse: His long lines can forsake semantic control. Here, for example, the citizens view their new home:
Times the clouds were like riven badlands, foils and arroyos and alluvial fans, rough country best traversed with safety ropes as if crossing polar seas over plates of tilting ice.
Times the clouds were gongs and temples, a rapture in pewter, grand passions, coffers of incense and precious woods.
Rapture and passions. Badlands and alluvial fans, and ice. Often McGrath seems to operate by the rule "Never use one word when three will do": The cloud-dwellers "missed things, various places and objects, old friends or distant cousins, specific sounds, familiar certainties" (as against unfamiliar ones). Later we see "luxurious waterfalls rooted in the barest mist or veil of vapor." Nor is such excess confined to the narrative poem. In the short poem "The Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial" McGrath summons "the vestigial memory of some as yet undreamed/category of violent distinction and hatred," a phrase almost any prose editor would blue-pencil.
McGrath's vivid description and his social critiques carry over into his short poems. So, alas, does his insistence on spelling things out. In a villanelle about the Florida State Fair,
...we're stamping and hooting all over the place
while the Texas swing band plays "Rocky Top, Tennessee"
and Haitian kids dip kettle candy beneath a live oak tree
in historic Cracker Country, apt and ironic misnomer for the place,
because this is Florida, after all, not Texas or Tennessee.
McGrath has to tell us what he finds "ironic"; otherwise we might not know. Elsewhere it can be hard to tell if he's kidding: "Trouble with Miami," one poem opines, "is...a dearth of cultural infrastructure so profound//that the only local institution worth its salt is the ocean," where "watching the beautiful women on the beach/...may be our best shot at real enlightenment." Is this a persona we're meant to dislike? Apparently not: "Florida," McGrath explains later, "is bereft of mythic infrastructure,/symbolically impoverished." It's an odd complaint in a book full of (highly symbolic) conquistadors, Seminoles, mangroves, alligators, mouseketeers and scarily iconic restaurants (of which more below). If that's "symbolically impoverished," what to call Delaware?
McGrath seems to mean not that Florida lacks symbols, but that its symbols end up either sinister or ridiculous, or both. The poems he finds he can make out of them are comic, and the comedy moves him to complain. When McGrath instead describes his private life, he can be more careful, and far more likable: "The Zebra Longwing" (named after a butterfly) ends as follows:
have borne them awayWings
have borne them away
from the silk
of the past as surely
as some merciful wind
has delivered us
to an anchorage of such
Elizabeth. All my life
I have searched, without knowing it,
for this moment.
McGrath has transported James Wright's famous poem "A Blessing" to a warmer climate and a happy marriage. He's done it so carefully that the transposition works.
McGrath rarely gets that calm, though; normally he wants for his own work the prophetic enthusiasms of Whitman or Ginsberg, who also combined sometimes-radical politics with long personal digressions. Yet Ginsberg and Whitman at their best were fascinated by the individuals who made it into their poems, whether for half a book (Carl Solomon in Howl) or for a couple of lines (Whitman's soldiers, prostitutes, firefighters). McGrath almost always considers people other than himself in fairly large groups--cloud-dwellers, exploited workers, the Calusa, the old folks, the tourists. He does better with "Maizel at Shorty's in Kendall":
All shift them sugar donuts
been singing to me,
calling to me something crazy in a voice
Dolly Parton'd be proud of--Maizel, honey,
eat us up!
Notice the alphabetical acrostic (lines begin a, b, c--), a form McGrath uses three times. It suits him, since it allows for long free-verse lists. "What I loved most," he declared in Spring Comes to Chicago, "was the depth and rationality of the catalogue"; here one acrostic ("Seashells, Manasota Key") comprises nothing but catalogue, from "Abras, augers, arks and angel wings" to Zirfaea crispata.
These lists take their place among other manifestations of McGrath's exuberance: He loves to say what he sees, and he finds most of it either very attractive or ugly indeed. Poetry, Yeats said, came not from our quarrels with others, but from our quarrels with ourselves. If there's such a quarrel here, it sets McGrath's impulse to celebrate absolutely everything--cars, lightning, alligators, America--against his understandable sense that Florida, and the other forty-nine states, are resource guzzlers headed for a fall. Usually, though, these poems enact McGrath's excited quarrels with others. Of "Disney's realm of immortal/simulacra," McGrath says that it makes too easy a target "when there are nastier vermin to contest," vermin like "Orlando itself," where "the anthem of our freedom is sung by Chuck E. Cheese." There follows a three-page attack on that fast-food chain and its iconic mouse, "the monstrous embodiment of a nightmare," designed "to entice the youngest among us/to invest their lives in a cycle of competitive consumption." This lengthy philippic against a pizzeria moves beyond predictability, beyond comedy and beyond politics into a vituperation as excessive as it is entertaining: What did Chuck E. Cheese ever do to McGrath?
In poems like that one ("Benediction for the Savior of Orlando"), McGrath is at bottom a dazzling performer, as much so as the cartoon figures he says he hates, though with an admirable politics his corporate nemeses obviously lack. The standard critique of, say, TV ads (they reduce us to passive receivers) might hold just as true for McGrath's verse, which leaves us little to figure out for ourselves. "The Florida Anasazi" attacks "the alligator-headed figure known to us as The Developer who works his trickery upon the people of the tribe, pilfering communal goods, claiming to produce that which he despoils." Pound called poetry news that stays news. Is this news? Does it tell us anything unexpected, either about how to understand evil developers or about how to resist what they try to do?
The long poem titled "The Florida Poem" is a different, and happier, matter. In it McGrath returns to a form that can showcase his talents and neutralize most of his faults. The form is the long, research-filled essay-cum-rant, with roots (McGrath's note suggests) in Pablo Neruda's Canto General--and in McGrath's own bigger, better, earlier, funnier "Bob Hope Poem" (from Spring). Neruda in one way, and "Bob Hope" in another, tried to give the history of a continent; here McGrath contents himself with one state in the union, about which his form allows him to say, and to enjoy saying, anything at all, from the whimsical to the sarcastic to the mock-classical ode:
Sing through me, o native goddess, o sacred orange
blossom nymph, o Weeki Wachee naiad...
Florida: it's here!
Florida: it's here and it's for sale!
Florida: it's neat, in a weird way!
Florida: Fuckin' Fantastic!
This would be my official suggestion for a new state motto...
Much of the poem returns to familiar targets, "marketers/and technocrats and mouseketeer apparatchiks" and so on. Yet the real subject of "The Florida Poem" is not the damage such folks have done but instead McGrath's feelings about the state they have produced, with its eye-popping sights and consumerist excess, its real fun and its false Fountains of Youth:
been enticed to sw...I myself have more than once
been enticed to swim in the icy oasis of DeLeon Springs,
and have eaten at the remarkable restaurant
reputedly housed in an old Spanish mill
where they grind still the wheat
to mix the batter you pool and flip on a griddle
in the middle of your very own table.
Pancakes and alligators and paddleboats and ruins
of vanished conquerors vanquished
in their turn. It's one of my favorite places in the state,
not merely for the flapjacks and historical ironies
but for the chaste fact of its beauty.
In this kind of writing, compression, obliquity, even precision, may be sacrificed for the sake of a voice. For this reason alone "The Florida Poem" is by far the best in the book. Its size lets it encompass both the obvious judgments McGrath thinks we need to hear (conquistadors bad, manatees good, "Indians...easily romanticized" yet "human, familiar with power and avarice") and the details that make those judgments entertaining even at their most predictable. (Floridian readers--especially if they speak Spanish--may call to mind aspects of their state McGrath leaves out.) Above all, "The Florida Poem" gives us the sound of a person talking: It has not only the faults but some of the virtues of what's now called "performance poetry" (a movement to which McGrath has not been linked):
...Andrew Jackson bought the whole place
for five million dollars and a solemn promise
to relinquish all future American
claims to Texas.
It's because McGrath--ordinarily--can't slow down for more than a couple of syllables that he gets comic effects from that one-line nonword. Elsewhere his rant reminds me of Williams's splendid and splenetic "Impromptu":
What the governor meant was
come and get it,
down, rip it up,
mill it for lumber, boil it for turpentine,
orchard it for oranges or pit-mine it for phosphates,
shoot it for hides or skins or quills
"It" comes to mean at once particular natural resources, the exploited population and the whole state: It's a neat rhetorical effect, one McGrath can only achieve in a long poem, and one that makes this long poem worth a try. As it spreads back into the prehuman past, and then into a misty future, McGrath applies these effects of capacious verve not just to the parts of the state he hates but to scenes within the state he loves:
of an element so...visceral
of an element so clear each grain of sand
sings forth, each bordering leaf of oak or heliconia,
each minnow or sunfish in the mineral wicker-work,
one jump, one plunge
toward the crevice of rifted limestone
wherefrom the earth pours forth
its liquid gift...
Now that's a Florida worth going to see.
Tuesday, March 5, midnight