Revisiting my 2004 New Year’s
predictions has been a humbling experience: not because I got everything
wrong, but because of what I got right. I predicted George W. Bush winning
a second term, but was far too generous estimating the margin of his
victory. Indeed, one could argue that the 2004 election was closer than
the 2000 contest -- given the pluses of incumbency, the fact that John
Kerry could be looking forward to his inauguration in a couple of weeks
if less than 60,000 Ohioans had switched their votes is astounding.
On the Democratic side, I was
wrong assuming Howard Dean would be the standard bearer, but I had the
actual ticket, Kerry and Edwards, down as the only likely veeps.
And I was right that Osama
bin Laden and Fidel Castro are still alive and at large and Ahmed Chalabi,
though buffeted, remains a figure in Iraq politics. I erred, though,
thinking Enron’s Ken Lay would not be indicted – though he still
seems a long way from suffering even Martha Stewart’s fate.
All in all, my less-than-perfect
record at the beginning of ‘04 has made me wary of predicting anything
in ‘05, but I will.
The grimmest predictions are
the safest: our military will be still protecting whatever rickety government
emerges from the Iraqi elections and the death toll of Americans by
year’s end will reach 2000. All along, I have predicted that the body
politic will accept the same number of casualties that was experienced
on 9/11, roughly 3000, before rebelling. That should give Bush yet another
two years to carry on his freedom-building, oil-protecting, geopolitical
experiment in Iraq before domestic discontent forces him to change his
policies – just in time before the build-up to the ‘08 election.
In that vein, Dick Cheney may
find it appropriate to retire, citing health problems, allowing for
a designated heir to take his place, one who could then achieve national
prominence and the Republican nomination to come. Perhaps as a reward
for keeping his state red, Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio will get the nod, and
thereby continue the dynastic tradition of the Bushes.
President Bush will get to
name at least one Supreme Court appointment and he will go for his most
extreme selection the first time out of the gate, so that any other
appointments to the High Court he gets to make during his term will
seem to be quite reasonable and moderate.
Social Security will not be
privatized in ‘05, but it may be closer to that in ‘06 -- after
all the debate that will be conducted – and if Republicans have gains
in Congress in the mid-term elections, it will happen in ‘07, even
though the fact that the amount of transition costs alone needed to
implement the so-called private accounts would make Social Security
solvent in perpetuity. But privatizers want to change Social Security
into Medicare – the system with real problems, given the endlessly
rising costs the private sector saddles it with, while the Republican
Congress forbids the government from using its collective-buying muscle.
The Democrats will remain too
predictable: the party will continue to be split between the value-voter
proponents and its progressive, secular wing. Republicans have managed
to make both ends of its party harmonious in national elections, but
it isn’t in the Democratic soul to be so accommodating.
Abortion will continue to be
used as a wedge to separate Democrats. It will be a club wielded by
warring factions and will provide Republicans with great comfort as
they watch Democrats bloody themselves over an issue Republicans have
eliminated from their party’s internal discussions.
Housing bubbles in speculative
real estate markets will not pop, but shrink, resulting in record foreclosures
and bankruptcies. Consumer debt will expand; savings rates will continue
to decline. In other words, the rich will get richer and the poor will
get poorer. Any good news?
Individual acts of bravery
and generosity will continue. Reporting itself may well become less
partisan and more measured for at least a few months in ‘05. Commentary,
however, will not let go of its sharp, ragged edge. However, as in ‘04,
I could be wrong – and, for a few things, I hope I am.
President Bush has begun to
take his “Social Security is in crisis” snake-oil show on the road,
but at this point he seems not entirely full-throated in its behalf.
Even Bush seems to realize you can only cry wolf (“The crisis is now!”)
so many times and he is near his quota in regards to Social Security.
And his first term presidential
commission made up entirely of pro-privatizers obscured as much as possible
the costs of implementing their grand idea; nonetheless, emboldened
by his second term squeaker victory, Bush persists.
To the question, “Why?”,
there are a lot of answers: ideology, hubris, the accolades of his peers
and consorts and retainers. But, to fulfill my New Year’s resolution
to try to think kindly of the president, one reason may be his genuine
attachment to the pleasures of inheritance.
President Bush certainly knows
those joys and he would like more Americans to be able to leave something
to their offspring – that he is leaving a national debt plumped up
by record deficits to everyone’s offspring doesn’t seem to bother
him much. But when he speaks of his desire to “save” Social Security,
he often stresses the thrill of being able to “pass on” whatever
loose change is left in his hoped-for private accounts -- or whatever
has accumulated therein if death strikes before retirement.
Of course, economists point
out that the wealth most people are able to pass on to their progeny
is by means of home ownership. Though, African-Americans have been short
changed when it comes to this method of inter-generational transfer.
Statistics show African-Americans
lagging behind in home ownership nationwide -- courtesy of redlining
and predatory lending -- and when homes are owned, they often face urban
decay and become the prey of equity sharks, who acquire the property
before death intervenes and leave nothing for heirs to claim except
But, President Bush’s faith
in his “ownership” society is genuine. He demonstrated his love
of home ownership by buying 1600 acres and building a lovely ranch house
on them right before he ran for the presidency. Since the president
has been largely self-employed until entering politics, he has had to
pay his FICA taxes himself, both as owner and employee, rather than
have them deducted from his paycheck like most workers. One can see
why he resents Social Security: he has had to write those quarterly
checks to Uncle Sam during his early years when he was unsuccessfully
wildcatting in the Texas oil markets.
So, he comes by his antipathy
to the system honestly. Why do I have to pay this, he doubtless often
wondered, when I could be using the money to invest in some more dry
holes? Now, as president, he can do his best to get rid of the whole
shebang. In any case, he is rich and can self-insure and doesn’t worry
about disability or death benefits.
And, I don’t doubt that the
president’s compassion for the tsunami victims is genuine, too, even
though, as has been generally pointed out, he may have been a bit slow
showing he cared, but when the White House recognized its PR problem
– like Tom DeLay forfeiting his Republican Congress granted get-out-of-jail-free
ethics card -- it responded big time.
President Bush sent his brother
Jeb, an expert in natural disasters and a governor with recent experience
receiving hefty government handouts, off to the area with the lame duck
Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to assess the damage. Bush then arranged
for his father and Bill Clinton to champion private donations for the
It does go against my New Year’s
resolution to think any of this was done cynically, especially Bush’s
highlighting of private giving (just like private accounts in Social
Security!), in order to make up for his lackluster original response
to the startling calamity. Indeed, President Bush wasn’t anymore self-serving
in this matter than Bill Clinton, who couldn’t resist letting himself
be used by Bush, for the usual Clinton reasons: wanting to be in the
public eye, to show the world he feels its pain, and repay the current
president for treating him with so much public respect -- respect Clinton
himself relinquished by his reckless personal behavior, behavior that
let the Bush family regain the White House in the first place.
Long ago, in a world far, far
away, the pre-9/11 era of 1996, Donald Rumsfeld turned up late in Bob
Dole’s failing presidential campaign as a spokesperson. Rumsfeld appeared
on “Meet the Press” and showed himself to be a man of no opinions.
As I wrote at the time, it is always interesting to watch the spectacle
of power brokers claiming they know nothing about a number of subjects,
or have no opinion on controversial issues. Such people, of course,
are only near the center of power because they have knowledge and opinions,
but they are often called on to publicly claim the opposite.
Alberto Gonzales was the latest
example of this enduring tradition of the well-placed not knowing anything.
In his drive-by confirmation hearing, one day long and less probing
than “Meet the Press,” brief enough for his young sons sitting behind
him – employed as a shield against any impolite questioning – not
to tire, the soon-to-be-confirmed-as-attorney-general Gonzales often
claimed absent knowledge, faulty memory, no opinion.
Back in ‘96, Donald Rumsfeld’s
lack of opinions seemed harmless enough, though history has since demonstrated
he has a lot of opinions and the ones he has recently put into action
have had tragic consequences. And, doubtless, Alberto Gonzales has a
lot of opinions, and he will put those into action and they, too, will
have serious and lingering consequences.
Gonzales, who owes his meteoric
career to George W. Bush, has long played the role of Bush’s Minister
of Death. In Texas, where then Gov. Bush made his reputation as being
hard on crime by executing more people than all the other death-penalty
states combined, it was Gonzales who prepared many briefings on whether
executive clemency would be warranted for the condemned. And it never
seemed to be warranted: Gonzales demonstrated a Shakespearean character's
instinct for divining his master’s wishes.
When Gonzales accompanied Bush
to the White House as his chief counsel, Gonzales went from executions
to torture. He became famous for the leaked memo that fulfilled his
boss’s desire to redefine torture, raising the bar for what would
be permitted in interrogations. Torture, thanks to Gonzales, allowed
physical coercion short of death or organ failure. That policy, and
the abandonment of Geneva Convention standards, created the atmosphere
than led to Abu Ghraib and other abuses.
Yet, during the confirmation
hearing, Gonzales did everything he could to distance himself from that
supposedly recently “rescinded” policy. “There was a discussion
between the White House and the Department of Justice, as well as other
agencies, about what does the statue [a 1994 anti-torture law] mean,”
Gonzales said, picturing a cartoon world where buildings and agencies
talk to one another. He added, “I don’t recall today whether I was
in agreement with all the analysis, but I don’t have a disagreement
with the conclusions.” But, he claimed, it wasn’t for him to decide:
“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the department [of Justice]
to tell us what the law means.” He was passing the torture buck.
Soon, though, Gonzales will
have to tell himself what the law means, because he will head the Department
of Justice. And, apparently, the law will mean what the president wants
it to mean, since Gonzales has never demonstrated any independence from
the thinking of George W. Bush.
The Senate Democrats questioning Gonzales were thoroughly ineffectual;
indeed, the toughest questions came from a Republican, Sen. Lindsey
Graham of South Carolina: “I think you weaken yourself as a nation,
Graham said, “when you try to play cute and become more like your
Gonzales seldom showed passion
in his testimony (he was never eloquent); but, in his response to Graham,
he said, “We are nothing like the enemy,” pointing out the beheadings
that have occurred. And his defense of President Bush was always heated:
Gonzales claimed over and over Bush would never allow torture to be
used (given the fluidity of its definition.) Our Islamic enemies behead
people, as Gonzales said -- whereas Texans use lethal injection -- but
no one pointed out that beheading captives isn’t torture, but murder,
whereas the subject under very limited discussion was torture (aka “unrestricted
extreme interrogation techniques”), which, of course, President Bush
would never, never, in any case, allow – however much those evil doers
The Armstrong Williams opinions-for-tax-dollars
flap and the Dan Rather/60 Minutes questionable-documents controversy
are poles apart, but they do bracket a lot of journalistic history.
First, the title “journalist” covers a lot of sins – and sinners.
Neither Williams nor Rather are typical “journalists,” as commonly
understood. Actual journalists are supposed to display impartiality,
a 1950s Sgt. Joe Friday’s “Just the Facts” stance. But such impartiality
has long been a myth -- bias comes with the territory and H. L. Mencken’s
old line, “Freedom of press is limited to those who own one,” is
controlling and omnipresent.
The 60 Minutes Wednesday embarrassment
described in CBS's recently released internal review is a case study
of what can go wrong with a high-end corporate television investigative
news show. It also reveals how seat-of-the-pants the process can be.
Here CBS joins hands with other notable news scandals of the last two
years: the New York Times, the New Republic, and USA Today's, principally,
how reporters (in those cases) could get away with outright fraud and
plagiarism. The presumption was that those elite operations kept close
tabs on what goes on in their organizations.
Well, obviously not. A sucker
is born every minute, doubtless, and businesses get taken all the time
(Enron, WorldCom, etc.) when the few find how easy they can pull the
wool over the eyes of the many.
Rather, in the 60 Minutes case,
functioned as a mere news reader, not a journalist; he has come a long
way from his early days of actual reporting. His producer, Mary Mapes,
one of the four people fired at CBS, wanted the anti-Bush story to be
true (as it more or less was), but the “fact” that she got wrong
was the authenticity of the documents involved. Being TV, the show needed
visuals: pictures of documents describing favoritism for Airman Bush.
Their existence had been rumored for some time. When produced (both,
it seems, literally and figuratively) they were too good to be questioned
Of course, CBS showed bias.
Mapes and 60 Minutes wanted the scoop: documents that proved what everyone
already knew since the election of 2000 -- that George W. Bush was treated
most uncommonly during his National Guard service, a notion the public
had already absorbed and passed on when Bush took office in 2001.
Armstrong Williams, on the
other hand, is a case study for a more modern, troubling development:
unlike 60 Minutes, the apotheosis of old journalism, TV style, Williams
is a poster boy for the new entrepreneurial “journalist,” individuals
whose background is politics and flackery and who trade access for legitimacy.
Williams emerges from this
fertile breeding ground; he worked in Strom Thurmond’s senate office.
Television has an excess of these personalities -- from Tim Russert
at NBC, to any number of people at Fox News: They labor in congressional
staff positions, or as campaign operatives, and then become dispensers
of deep thought (such as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos) on the national
Williams, who pleads all sorts
of convincing ignorance of journalistic ethics, came to prominence as
a supporter of Clarence Thomas, during Thomas’s contentious Supreme
Court confirmation hearings. Williams then reaped the benefits of that
exposure and with help became a successful conservative black commentator.
The recent revelation that the Department of Education paid him nearly
a quarter of a million dollars to speak well of the No Child Left Behind
act is not so much a scandal, but yet another revelation of hitherto
secret backstage shenanigans.
The White House knows PR and
advertising and how to package falsehoods and shoddy goods. Its mastery
of those ethically-challenged crafts – with the aid of pseudo-journalists
like Williams – brought us the Iraq war and is attempting to sell
the privatization of Social Security. But, its PR confidence may have
finally overreached: on posters plastered throughout Iraq urging the
population to vote, pictured in newspapers and magazines here without
comment, there is a manicured hand of a man wearing a crisp white shirt
and a smart gray suit putting a ballot (looking like the old Iraqi flag)
into a box. The hand, of course, is not any typical Iraqi hand, but
a very Western one: it could be Paul Bremer’s hand, or Ambassador
John Negroponte’s hand, or, even, George W. Bush’s hand -- for once,
truth in advertising. As with Williams and 60 Minutes, such blatant
public missteps let us all see how things really work behind the scenes.
Two elections, one at hand
and the other upcoming, will reverberate through the next four years
of American politics: the first, of course, is today’s Iraqi balloting
and the other is next month’s vote for the Democratic National Committee
The Iraq election date was
set to coincide with our, not the Iraqis, political calender: after
November’s presidential contest and before next week’s State of
the Union address. The carrot of an Iraqi election played its role in
the Republican campaign; it served as the light at the end of the tunnel,
something hopeful – however tainted – that could be pointed to,
apart from the many follies of our regime change adventure. It’s unmoveable
date was picked also to give the president’s SOTU speech a centerpiece,
just as the Space Shuttle Challenger launch was timed to give Ronald
Reagan’s 1986 speech his teacher-in-space moment.
The Iraqi election is meant
to ratify a process already underway, the forming of a government roughly
proportionate to the ethnic, religious and clan divisions within the
country. The election will be more a census-taking, more a marking of
identity than politics.
Whatever the outcome, the formation
process will continue, since the hundreds of candidates (largely anonymous
to the voters, as well as to the rest of us) running and “winning”
will work, as the current interim government has, under the supervision
of their White House sponsors and protectors.
Today’s balloting will provide
the Bush administration with a success marker – unless, like the Challenger,
it all blows up. Anything short of that kind of disaster will grant
President Bush continued bragging rights, a mission-almost-accomplished
moment, a trophy to make his inaugural speech rhetoric real, a final
post-dating of the proffered reason for invading Iraq, to bring it American
bought-and-paid-for democracy. President Bush was already boasting of
it in Wednesday’s press conference.
And, however small in comparison,
the Democratic National Committee election will set in motion the future
of the Democratic party. One outcome of the DNC race – one that may
also play out in Iraq -- could be the splintering of the party. A new
Federal Republic of Iraq may eventually have the quasi-independent state
of Kurdistan in the north, and a south dotted with a number of smaller
states always in contention, ripe for civil war. And the Democratic
party, too, could become an entity divided by conflict; it is now essentially
two parties: one, a secular, hyper-educated, progressive wing; the other,
a traditional, conservative, family-oriented, unionized, highly patriotic,
middle-class mass. The latter has the largest percentage of volatile
supporters, those who can be turned into hyphenated voters: Reagan-Democrats,
Bush-Democrats, often on a single issue (abortion), or a cluster of
issues, gays, guns, and a perceived lack of military gung-ho.
Republicans managed to knit
together their differences in the last election; the surprise is that
the Democrats were able to also: Bush’s historically small victory
is a result of the solidarity Democrats were able to muster in November
2004. The “surprise” was that the Democrats lost the get-out-the-vote
vote: there were more – though not that many more – new Republicans
voting in 2004 than new Democrats.
But that election-time solidarity
was short lived. The Democratic divisions are being played out in the
DNC contest. The poles of the party are represented by the two candidates
getting the most attention: Howard Dean and Tim Roemer – they represent
the Sunni and the Shiite factions of the party, former gov. and presidential
hopeful Dean the secular screamer and former Rep. Roemer the moral values
Yet the DNC could reach for
the administration’s hoped-for Iraq solution: regional autonomy functioning
within a single system. Let there be co-chairs, two parties within one.
A party so found of historical precedent should recall that the last
time it captured the presidency it was the result of a three-way election:
Bill Clinton first won because of the third party candidate, H. Ross
Perot. Let the Democratic party acknowledge the obvious. Divided into
two, each side could grow larger and, by agreeing on a common candidate
at election time, the Progressive Democrats (the Progs) and the Traditional
Democrats (the Trads) would likely outnumber Republicans. Two here are
better than one. It is divide and conquer, but, for the Democrats, the
division needs to be within, not without.
Since the junior Senator from
Massachusetts, John Kerry, wasn’t able to deliver a State of the Union
speech this week, his state’s senior Senator gave one instead last
month at the National Press Club. Sen. Edward Kennedy outlined the state
of disunion in the Democratic party, vowing, nonetheless, to remain
confident and hopeful: “So I look forward to this year and the years
ahead with full awareness of the great challenges facing our country,
but with full confidence as well in our ability to renew our Democratic
Party to successfully meet them and persuade America that we are right.”
Just how the Democrats got
to the point where they need to persuade America that they are right
may have been best demonstrated by John Kerry himself, toward early
in his campaign, he made his often-mocked remark, “I actually did
vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” talking about
an early appropriation bill for Iraq – Kerry voted for the bill when
rescinded tax cuts paid for it, against when that provision was pulled.
All voters aren’t immune
to subtlety and paradox, but at least 52% just don’t want it displayed
in public by their leaders. Even George W. Bush has had to backtrack
from his few remarks that require too much thought, such as the one
about Iraq being a “catastrophic success” – and his rapidly withdrawn
observation that the war on terror can’t ever really be won.
Many voters who grew up in
the Vietnam period, a good chunk of them baby boomers, have been forced
to dwell on the paradoxes that they were so constantly exposed to during
those years: Having to destroy the village in order to save it, and
But, the Vietnam war wasn’t
alone in spawning such contradictions. The 60th anniversary of the liberation
of Auschwitz that has just passed, and the numerous reports and documentaries
it prompted, showed WWII was the primary source of much of the generational
Many anti-war figures of the
Vietnam war era had been influenced by the concentration camp films
they had watched in their youths. More than a few were not eager to
repeat the actions of the dutiful Germans depicted. One of Hitler’s
horrors, I thought back then, was that he gave war a good name.
A big chunk of John Kerry’s
generation absorbed the major contradictions of those events: Hitler
needing to be stopped and annihilated, side by side with the need not
to obey orders and commit atrocities. And Vietnam seemed to be one atrocity
after the other, many committed by our side: My Lai, napalming villages,
licensing free fire zones, etc. Our military seemed to be merely propping
up an unpopular government and keeping the Vietnamese from uniting their
country, winning all along no hearts and fewer minds. It took over 12
years to extract ourselves from that quagmire.
John Kerry was steeped in those
contradictions, but he attempted to shake himself free of them when
he ran in 2004, an error many now acknowledge may have contributed to
his defeat. At the very least, it led to such gaffes as his “I voted
for it...before I voted against it” remark. If Kerry had made his
hard-won knowledge of complexity the center of his campaign from the
start, it wouldn’t have served as campaign fodder for Republican attacks.
The invasion of Iraq has brought
back vividly all those war-time contradictions. Kerry’s back-and-forth
on Iraq was turned against him. Indeed, even his service in Vietnam
was held against him, whereas Bush’s stateside, youthful escapades
were not. Kerry lived the contradictions; Bush enjoyed his simplicities.
And Republicans bludgeoned Kerry with own ambivalence and understanding,
since he, at the convention and beyond, downplayed his complicated experience.
President Bush prefers absolutes,
fundamentalist-based universals, a world of dead or alive. The Democratic
challenge is, unfortunately, to rid itself of complexity, or from broadcasting
notions with inherent contradictions. Whereas, President Bush and his
people have sworn allegiance to directness and it often makes them ignore
truth – and reality, as well – in pursuit of their objectives. The‘04
election showed, contrary to Sens. Kerry and Kennedy’s hopes, that
a slight majority of Americans would rather simply be led, than be forced
to entertain contradictory and troubling thoughts.
These days, you can’t turn
around without bumping into a Social Security discussion, in print or
on radio and TV. Gone are the days when only the few (myself included)
defended the system against the well-funded attacks of Wall Street firms
and conservative and libertarian think tanks. Indeed, the saturation
coverage these past weeks may account for the sour faces around the
White House, since the general public – and a number of Republicans
– hasn’t responded enthusiastically to the official roll-out of
President Bush’s pro-privatization campaign.
During his State of the Union
speech, only Bush’s remarks on re-engineering Social Security brought
forth signs of protest from Democrats: For a moment, the chamber sounded
like Britain’s House of Commons during one of Tony Blair’s weekly
appearances – full of hoots, hisses, and hollers.
Though President Bush, throughout
his speech, basked in his party’s adulation(over 60 interruptions
for applause, more than one a minute), some of its members aren’t
parroting the approved script on the wonders of “personal accounts.”
Even some conservative Republicans admit that Bush’s plans for privatization
do not address the possible 75-year financial shortfall the system’s
critics have been complaining about since 1937.
Only through magical accounting
(rivaling Enron and WorldComs’ practices)does the president’s scheme
avoid cutting benefits and doubling the national debt. But the president
is counting on the where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire principle: Create
enough confusion and he’ll get to do something to the system that
will benefit his ideological supporters and corporate sponsors.
But Bush’s Social Security
PR push has taken the subject out of the hands of partisans – those
like myself who support the system and those who want to end it –
and moved the debate into the less emotionally engaged scrutiny of the
For non-passionate observers,
the contradictions of Bush’s plan are stark: it is hard for the privatizers
to claim that returns on stock will remain historically high for decades
to come, while at the same time claiming the very conservative estimates
of economic growth over the same period set by Social Security experts
foretell its doom. Either things go well, or they don’t – if the
economy grows faster than the SS actuaries predict, then no shortfall
is forecasted, ever.
Bush’s plan is being revealed
for what it is: an ideological crusade to undo one of the great governmental
accomplishments, a guaranteed financial safety net for all workers,
one designed to catch them (especially the 60% of low-wage earners)from
falling into destitution at retirement.
In its place, privatizers want
to expand a tax-favored savings plan already used by some workers, while
undermining the Social Security system, reducing its efficiencies and
If advocates of privatization
really believe in their scheme, they could push for this: keep their
plan of personal accounts, but implement it as an add-on to the system,
funding it through a rise in the payroll FICA deduction by two percentage
points – for both the worker and the employer. For employees this
wouldn’t be a tax increase, for, as the privatizers say so often,
it is their money. For employers, the additional small amount would
pay the administrative costs and employers would gain the tax-benefits
and employee goodwill that already accrue to the government-assisted
private pension system, which has supported higher income workers for
Let the add-ons be phased in
and see how it works for some 20-30 years and then revisit the alleged
“crisis” – what President Bush now calls a “problem” – and
see if it is a crisis then. What’s 20-30 years when the Republicans
are so worried about the system’s fate 40 and 75 years from now?
But, it is now obvious, the
Social Security debate is an ideological battle, not an economic one,
and privatizers don’t want a solution, they want a victory. Next week:
solutions for any possible Social Security shortfall and a proposal
for how to enhance the retirement savings of all American workers.
President Bush is attempting
to take the Security out of Social Security. The unintended consequences
of privatization have yet to be studied – or thought of. Imagine what
the country will be like if all its workers are wired into the stock
market: cyclical fluctuations will ripple throughout the nation, affecting
every city and town. If the stock market tanks for a couple of years,
there likely will be cries from the population to change the system
of benefits long-gone President Bush sold to congress and the public.
Whereas, when Wall Street suffered and fortunes were lost after the
tech bubble burst in the early 2000s, Social Security checks kept on
coming and circulated through Main Street.
Many experts have long said
that only those who can afford it should take the risks to get rich
on the stock market. In his State of the Union address, President Bush
said, “We’ll make sure the money can only go into a conservative
mix of bonds and stock funds.” What?! No IPOs, growth stocks, the
vehicles that made a few hundred people rich in the 1990s?
And for the minority of Americans
who have retirement accounts, 401ks, and traditional pensions, those
tax-favored accounts now cost the Treasury $110 billion a year. But
Social Security taxes haven’t been raised in fourteen years. Since
1937, whenever actuaries predicted a 75-year shortfall, Congress raised
FICA taxes – and every time that has been done there has been an expansion
of benefits, except for once, in 1983. There has been nearly twenty
small increases over the history of the program and it shouldn’t come
as a surprise that a couple more small ones over the next two decades
would put the system right.
One change that could be made,
one that would solve roughly 60% of the 75-year projected shortfall,
would be to raise the cap on earnings from the current $90 thousand
to something in the $100-110 thousand range over the next few years,
and, if necessary, gradually raise the FICA taxes a percentage point
or two in 2020. You could also include in the Social Security system
all state employees who are currently exempt.
As you can see, there is nothing
radical about these changes. They are small and prudent. Indeed, some
Republicans find such little changes comforting. Recently, the blustering
conservative talk show host, John McLaughin, surprised his panelists
by saying the most conservative thing to do in order to save Social
Security is to do as little as possible. What President Bush wants to
do is revolutionize the retirement system. Like his tax cuts, all the
changes mainly benefit the well-off and the rich. The White House’s
own rosy projections, show low income workers only gaining an additional
$2 thousand, from $15 to $17 thousand a year, if all goes swimmingly.
And, as USA Today reported, “For most workers, there may be little
left after purchasing” the required annuity to be inherited. And those
are the administrations own pie-in-the-sky estimations. What is certain
is that Wall Street firms will enjoy fees if the market goes either
up or down: Social Security becomes Wall Street Security.
What should be done is not
reduce Social Security benefits, but raise them. If the prudent steps
outlined above are taken to insure the system, there would be enough
in it to raise benefits for the very oldest who now suffer 20% poverty
rates – most are women.
To increase saving rates all
workers could have a mandated 1-2 percent add on, where accounts would
be managed by the Social Security system on a not-for-profit basis.
The savers’ credit could be expanded to all low income workers to
help them pay the additional tax.
This would benefit almost everyone
– only Wall Street and those who want less government lose. For the
Bush administration, its push to privatize the system is, if nothing
else, a diversion from the real problem of solving Medicare’s (a word
that was not uttered during Bush’s State of the Union) obvious difficulties
and permit the White House to further chip away at Medicare, handing
yet more of it over to the private sector. But, if the Congress retains
its senses, Social Security can be enhanced and be made even more secure
Last Nov. 3, the idea that
Howard Dean would become head of the Democratic National Committee would
have struck most everyone as lunacy. A few short months later, it seems
almost reasonable. When Bill Clinton tapped Terry McAuliffe for that
job some four years ago, Clinton left his stamp on the party: McAuliffe
represented the pardon-giving, money-loving side of the former Bubba-in-Chief,
a friend to large corporations and constituencies.
But this time there was no former president to anoint a DNC head --
only a defeated candidate and a floundering party left in psychological
disarray. In stepped Howard Dean, a loser who didn't consider himself
a loser, but a prophet before his time. The Democratic bench was not
deep. Dean's competition wasn't any more formidable than those he met
in the primaries, and Dean showed the same skills of grass-roots lobbying
that made him a front-runner back in early 2004. He got to know the
local folks and they voted him into the job.
And Dean has learned some lessons: He avoided the usual rounds of Sunday
talk shows immediately after his elevation. Clearly, Dean wants to establish
some bona fides before emerging as the public face of the DNC. In any
case, the nation already knows Dean's face -- almost too well. Such
reticence becomes him, and Dean may be able to labor in the vineyards
profitably, remain behind the scenes for some time, since he doesn't
need to make himself known. Not having to make a splash may actually
allow him to swim a bit deeper and do a better job of reorganizing the
base of the party -- both its fund-raising and its ideological foundations.
The DNC now has at least the chance to become the Democratic wing of
the Democratic Party.
One reason the Dean ascendancy does not seem so bizarre is because there
is a lot of competition for strangeness. Given the war in Iraq, the
unusual looks mighty common these days. And, like the Democrats, the
Bush administration keeps demonstrating that its bench also is not deep.
Two recent White House appointments highlight the thinness: The pool
of the Bush loyalty troops is shrinking, and the naming of Michael Chertoff
as head of Homeland Security and John Negroponte as director of National
Intelligence are examples of the slim catches that remain.
Chertoff proved his mettle as chief counsel of the Senate Whitewater
Committee, back in the days when the Bush family took some comfort in
seeing Bill Clinton dragged through the mud -- before the recent tsunami-inspired
bonhomie demonstrated by the Hope-and-Crosby touring of the two former
Chertoff's reward for his service in the Clinton wars and the Bush Justice
Department was a federal judgeship; now he saves the Bushes further
embarrassment over the Bernard Kerik fiasco. Chertoff's role in the
dumbing-down of torture statutes was hardly a bump in the road in his
quick Senate confirmation, given the 98-0 vote.
Negroponte's appointment also reveals how few trees are left to cut
down in the Bush woods. Like a number of Bush's confidants, Negroponte
is a veteran of his father's time: George H.W. Bush was an overseer
of all things Central American during the Reagan years. Far from being,
as then former Vice President Bush claimed, ''out of the loop,'' he
has a lifetime of experience observing the various chess matches of
that region: A lot of the oil business he was involved in was there
and in the Caribbean.
Negroponte, in his short time in Iraq as ambassador, brought with him
his own ''Honduran option'' -- the training of Iraqi death squads to
kidnap and kill -- though the military calls it the ''Salvadoran option''
so as not to bring too much attention to its actual provenance. Negroponte
was the ambassador to Honduras during the Iran-Contra period and when
Honduran army death squads killed hundreds, including Americans.
That he is now George W. Bush's chief briefer on intelligence matters
closes the circle: It is as if the family is only talking to itself.
Given the limited personnel that President Bush deals with -- people
with extensive dealings with the entire Bush family -- there is something
of a crime syndicate atmosphere about the entire enterprise. When there
are so few to be trusted, what are they being trusted with?
Members of the House of Representatives
across the country have been holding gatherings in the last two weeks
on saving Social Security. What they've heard has not cheered the president.
President Bush has been forced to hold more staged, ''town hall'' discussions,
hastily flying out to Notre Dame to make his pitch to college-age youth.
But, the president has about run out of language to use on Social Security.
There are only so many times you can say ''bankrupt,'' ''personal accounts''
and ''ownership society'' before the broken-record syndrome takes over.
One unintended consequence of Bush's push for Social Security privatization
is that he has taken away from Republican lawmakers a staple of their
2006 re-election stump speeches. No longer can they just extol the wonders
of private accounts, the something-for-nothing idea they have been selling
for so many congressional elections. Voters are better informed now--and
often know more than many members of the House.
Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.), a second-term congressman, recently held
a number of get-togethers in his northern Indiana district, but often
appeared woefully unprepared to answer hard questions and criticisms
of the president's privatization plan. Up till now, Chocola, who used
family wealth to buy a seat in Congress, has been a rubber stamp for
all things Bush, payback for the president's campaign visits during
Chocola's 2002 run for the House, which helped him squeak to victory.
At last week's talkathon in South Bend, Chocola looked dumbfounded when
it was pointed out to him -- after he claimed there was no money in
the Social Security trust fund waiting to be doled out, whereas regular
pension funds had ''real cash'' behind them -- that there were no piles
of cash waiting for pensioners, either -- or for stockholders, for that
matter -- only ''claims,'' pieces of paper, just like Social Security.
But salesmanship has been weak from both the president and other officials
of the Bush administration. The White House successfully sold the Iraq
war and weapons of mass destruction to the public, but is stumbling
badly trying to sell Social Security privatization. That is because,
given the tragic tones of the war, with its grand themes of life and
death, fear was fomented, and mistakes and exaggerations were -- and
remain -- muffled.
Stateside, though, distortions and missteps appear exactly as they are:
inept, often sophomoric, along the lines of the paying so-called pundits
and journalists for favorable coverage, even to the point of allowing
a shill from a Republican-sponsored Web site, GOPUSA, into White House
press briefings, where he was addressed on a first-name basis by both
Bush's press secretary and the president. The fellow used two names,
Jeff Gannon and James Guckert, and turned out to have at least two professions:
gay hustler and would-be Internet purveyor of White House press releases.
The episode evoked laughter and derision here at home, but anything
similar in Iraq would be smothered by the all-too-serious business at
It also didn't help the president during his privatization launch to
have a former friend release audio tapes of then-Gov. Bush discussing
his political future. Besides confirming Bush's youthful drug use, the
tapes also showed him to be coldly calculating, describing which issues
would help him and which would hurt him. Stories appeared on those tapes,
but also on his pre-governor days, back in 1978, when Bush began supporting
privatization, using more or less the same language he does now.
Americans can be sold the idea of acting because of lofty ideals: freedom,
the end of tyranny and tyrants, fairness for all. Much of the public
found it easy to move from weapons of mass destruction as a cause for
war, to liberating the people of Iraq from the sadistic, despotic rule
of Saddam Hussein. However, the same people are clearly balking when
President Bush attempts to sell them the end of Social Security under
the guise of buying into an ''ownership society'' where everyone can
fund his or her own retirement with personal accounts.
Unlike foreign battlefields, the domestic front is too close to everyone,
and what goes on can be seen for what it is: trading the world's most
successful Social Security retirement and insurance system for an idea
whose time definitely has not come.
Foolish consistency may be
the hobgoblin of little minds, but it certainly is a hallmark of the
Bush administration. Conveniently, the White House’s Social Security
push acts as a smokescreen behind which smaller anti-worker legislative
initiatives go through unimpeded. The latest example is the minimum
wage bill defeat, side by side with the retooled punitive bankruptcy
bill that appears destined to pass.
The domestic price of a Bush
second term was always going to be high and many who will pay the price
of Bush’s continued concern for the well-off, and his disdain for
those who can’t quite make it, voted against their own self interest
-- in the name of supporting our military in Iraq.
One amendment that went down
for defeat in the bankruptcy bill was exemptions favoring veterans or
active duty soldiers. The entire bill was crafted on behalf of the predatory
credit card industry, who brought usury back into favor, but that isn’t
out of the ordinary in the Bush administration, since every department
and agency is staffed by former employees of the industries they are
meant to oversee and police.
Now that the Republicans control
all branches of government and are on the verge of gaining a stranglehold
on the Supreme Court – if and when the ailing Chief Justice Rehnquist
finally retires – their hopes of reshaping government are now taking
President Bush made his consistent
intentions clear upon his reelection when he reintroduced all the nominees
for federal judgeships that had been stymied by Democratic filibuster
in his first term.
Republicans were beset with amnesia when they cried foul over such Democratic
hardball tactics, conveniently forgetting how they used similar strategies
to block Clinton judicial appointees.
President Bush isn’t opposed
to using his nominees as body armor, letting them take the heat, while
he and his surrogates criticize the Democrats for fulfilling their duty
as advisors and consenters.
In today’s world, where “extreme” is a favorite adjective to attach
to almost anything, President Bush takes pride in extreme victories.
He is out on the edge, wanting more tax cuts for the rich, and those
already passed to be made permanent, while taking over two middle eastern
countries, letting one (Afghanistan) become a narco-state, the largest
producer of heroin, in the process, enriching our war lord allies who
the Taliban had suppressed.
In the minimum wage debate,
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA)offered his own version of a bill, which was
a maximum benefit bill for business, with a small ($1.10) increase over
18 months for workers. That such an increase wouldn’t buy a gallon
of gas didn’t bother Sen. Santorum, since that paltry raise came with
wide restrictions, among others, on overtime pay, plus doubling the
revenue limit for businesses that are exempt from the minimum wage altogether.
Of course, both the bankruptcy
bill and the minimum wage bill are proxies for the privatization of
Social Security. Republican ideologues shout: Let each and everyone
fund his or her own retirement and let individuals pay their debts –
or else! Could debtors prison be far behind? There’s no free lunch
– except for business lunches and subsidized corporate dining rooms
and golden parachute executive pensions.
The main reason for the Social
Security 75 year shortfall is that wages of ordinary workers have not
risen over the last two decades. Wages have risen for high-end employees.
That is why so many see raising the salary cap as a solution for the
shortfall. Above $90 thousand of earnings is where the money has gone:
In 1982 only 9.9% of all earnings were above the cap; by 2004 over 17%
were. That outcome wasn’t foreseen by Social Security actuaries in
the late 1980s. In that vein, the minimum wage hasn't changed since
1997, while Senators and House members have pocketed generous pay raises
over the last eight years. The economic attack on low income workers
is many pronged. And, given the consistency of the Bush administration,
it is unrelenting.
Even the moderate Republican
critique of Democrats today is that they are the “do nothing” party,
without an agenda, trapped by a web of musty ideas and ideals, holding
press conferences in Washington by FDR’s statue, advancing only the
old, never the new.
Indeed, Democrats have become
a reactive party: Starting with the Clinton years, given the nonstop
Republican assault on both Clintons, resulting in Bill Clinton’s impeachment,
Democrats have been reacting, rather than proposing.
And, since the reinstatement
of the Bush dynasty in 2000, Democrats have been playing defense –
unfortunately, they haven’t been playing defense that well, which
is why they are open to the “do nothing” charge. Most major Bush
administration initiatives have not been blocked, which is why the White
House is so flummoxed about why the Social Security privatization magic
trick isn’t working.
President Bush and his surrogates
are continuing their 60 events in 60 days campaign. Bush's recent appearance
at Notre Dame was a repeat of his show in New Jersey earlier that day
and the script remains the same as he travels from place to place. What
changes is the hand-picked “folks” up on the stage, though their
questions and testimonials remain familiar: they love President Bush
and really, really want personal accounts.
In each locale the ticket allocation
is controlled by local Republican politicians, but, at Notre Dame, being
a university, a few faculty and student outliers did get seats. And
it was broadcast by a local television station, so one could see the
whole thing, not just the few soundbites used on the news.
The main problem of President
Bush’s presentation was its dishonesty: He says what he wants about
the Social Security system, regardless of the facts. It was appalling
to see the president tell young people that they should fear that Social
Security won’t be there for them when they retired.
It isn’t often you see the
head of state tell an audience that a promised program back by its government
bonds will, poof, disappear. Bush even resurrected the discredited canard
that more young people believed in UFOs than believed they would get
Bush wasn’t being truthful
when he said Social Security will be flat broke in 2042 – then, at
worse, it can pay 70 percent of benefits, more than the announced cuts
in Bush’s private accounts plan. Bush wants to end Social Security
as we know it. He is not afraid to break eggs to make his various omelettes
– invading Iraq may have horrendous consequences, as well as a few
good ones. The audacious part is not to care about the bad, but to only
dwell on the good: Iraqis voting, Saddam in custody, the Middle East
adjusting to the new reality, people power taking to the streets in
Lebanon. The Republicans are certainly the do something party, whereas
the Democrats, those stuck-in-cement Democrats, do nothing. Why not
break Social Security’s eggs?
It helps to be a child of wealth
and privilege to have that go-for-it “do something” attitude. At
Notre Dame, the thousands of Republicans at the “town hall” meeting
leapt to their feet in wild applause when President Bush said the personal
accounts can be left to their children. Bush didn’t explain how a
system that was “bankrupt” would somehow borrow a few trillion dollars
to create private accounts, so they could be left to their children
when they died. And, certainly, no one pointed out that Social Security
does leave an income for life for a surviving elderly spouse, indexed
for inflation, and survivor’s benefits for dependent children, tantamount
to $400 thousand dollars in life insurance.
The public, though, remains
hesitant about taking away their retirement safety net for one of Bush’s
fashioning. Do nothing Democrats have been doing something this time
around: letting Bush’s plan wither in the intense media spotlight.
The Social Security solvency fix is not hard, though it does require
Republican cooperation. But, in this case, many leading Republicans
– especially the ethically challenged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay,
who knows how to raise corporate campaign donations, if not taxes on
corporations -- want to destroy the system in the name of saving it:
it’s private accounts or nothing. If nothing gets done this year,
it will be Republicans doing something that amounts in the end to nothing.
Easter marks the resurrection
of Jesus Christ, but this Holy Week has been consumed with the passion
play of Terri Schiavo, or, rather, that of her parents, their enablers
Until last week the Schiavo
case was a cable news sideshow, but after the Congress took it up it
became something more ominous and troubling. The Republican-controlled
Congress has usually reserved its knavery for economic issues and gains,
but it stepped out 76-trombone-style into the culture wars, carrying
the banner of Terri Schiavo, led by the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay,
a man of many parts, most of them unsightly, wrapping himself in the
white shroud of a savior, almost single-handedly hauling Terri Schiavo
under the wing of the Federal government.
DeLay looks at this as win-win – as a leaked Republican memo said,
“This is a great political issue,” because the Democratic Senator,
Bill Nelson from Florida, is up for reelection, and he “has already
refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for the Democrats.”
Terri Schiavo either alive or dead is good news for DeLay, his bogus
crocodile tears notwithstanding. This is what you get when theocrats,
both fake and real, take over Congress and the White House.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had already
crafted his state’s “Terri’s law” for his pre-2004 election
benefit, though it was quickly struck down as unconstitutional, but
it had already done its useful work. Even Gov. Bush’s appointed guardian
ad litem concluded the Terri Schiavo was – as so many had already
asserted – in a persistent vegetative state.
The last fifteen years have
been a nightmare for all the principals in the Terri Schiavo case. Now
their nightmare has been shared with us all. Terri’s parents have
had no problem turning their daughter into a public spectacle. They
and her siblings live in an entirely parallel universe concerning her
condition, compared to the courts and her husband’s reality. Terri’s
father and brother and sister believe, as they described on the Fox
News program Hannity & Colmes, that Terri was married to a version
of Scott Peterson who struck and strangled her, resulting in her present
That the courts and the husband
contend that Terri had an eating disorder, was bulimic, which caused
a potassium imbalance, resulting in a heart attack and an insult to
the brain, similar to how the entertainer Karen Carpenter died, is disbelieved
by the immediate family. Only in the Bush age, inured to hearing false
claims made by important people, can such contradictory views of the
world become equally plausible explanations – plausible at least to
some segments of the public.
Religion has played an unseemly
role in this drama. Terri’s dad and mom at every opportunity refute
arguments by saying that as a good Catholic girl Terri would have never
expressed a desire to die with dignity, rather than be kept alive by
any means possible. Nor would she be bulimic. The parents find it more
comforting to believe she would be married to a wife killer, than to
have either of those failings.
Catholic priests have joined
with the former hate-talking, anti-abortion advocate Randall Terry to
publicize this case. But all that influence pales to the fervid embrace
Why the larger public – not
the Republican Christian fundamentalist base – recoils at all this
is because so many people have personal experience with this sort of
family tragedy. My Aunt Freddy, Sister Saint Frederick, of the IBVM
order, was kept alive by the devoted ministrations of her fellow sisters
at the Wheaton mother house after a series of strokes. She was in a
coma, not a persistent vegetative state, a difference often obscured
by the supporters of Terri Schiavo's family. After two years, Aunt Freddy’s
feeding tube was removed because it had become infected. Her siblings
agreed that a new one shouldn’t be inserted and she died surrounded
by her loving community. Medicine and its procedures can be an unholy
bloody mess, which is why the Right to Life movement continues to gain
adherents. When Jesus rose from the dead, it wasn’t to have lentil
soup in downtown Jerusalem: He shortly returned to His Father in heaven.
Conservative Republicans would
rather have Terri Schiavo on vulgar display for political profit, rather
than to let her be at peace with her maker.
Given the realities of the
war in Iraq – shock and awe, death and destruction, a continuing guerilla-war-like
insurgency – it is easy to overlook what in Hollywood is called “the
backstory,” what our government also brought to Iraq when it invaded:
we’re not just bringing “democracy” to Iraq, we are bringing,
without objection, unchecked free-market ideology.
When Paul Bremer, fresh from
Kissinger Associates, first arrived in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional
Authority made a lot of changes, other than just disbanding what was
left of the Iraqi army. He annulled all of Saddam Hussein’s rules
and regulations overseeing the Iraq economy, except for one: He kept
Saddam’s laws banning labor unions.
Tariffs protecting Iraqi industries
were cut to a minimum. Foreign ownership of land and most businesses
was allowed. Iraq had had a largely self-sustaining economy, but when
Bremer’s reforms were enacted, all that changed.
Iraq’s cement industry quickly
found itself being undersold by Jordanian firms after the tariffs were
cut and when cement plants shut down – similar to the permanent death
steel mills suffer when closed – they turn into concrete. Iraq is
now a cement importer – not a sign of economic efficiency. As one
military observer put it, the state department sent in young economists
– many in their first job out of graduate school – to create the
free-market economy Bremer and the White House wanted.
When Bremer left last June
he didn’t leave behind a new economy, just a destroyed one. His successor,
John Negroponte, is leaving to become the national intelligence czar
and no one has yet been named to replace him.
The free-market economy experiment
has made Iraq a nation of importers and high unemployment – nearly
50 percent – and the U.S. underwrites endless unemployment insurance.
Much of business is still conducted in a cash-and-carry manner. Hundred
dollar bills have been a symbol of the Iraq war since its very beginning,
when caches of them were found squirreled away in various locations
around the country. The American military pays compensation in cash
for whatever human collateral damage occurs, if relatives of the damage
The new Iraqi government in
formation is having trouble deciding how to cut up the spoils of the
war, though, at this point, the spoils are largely spoiled. Counter
to all claims to the contrary, the one industry that remains as it was
before the war – in fact, has even improved – is the oil industry,
and, though Bremer wanted it privatized, oil was exempted temporarily
from privatization, though it remains under the protection and control
of the U.S. military. But, in any case, outside investors aren’t too
eager to risk their capital and employees in such an unsafe environment.
Last week, Iraq’s National Assembly halted its work when it couldn’t
decide who would be named oil minister.
What the Bush administration
is doing domestically – trying to privatize Social Security, damage
the PBGC, continue tax favors for corporations, changing the bankruptcy
laws to favor business over individuals, applying free-market ideology
wherever possible – is done, and has been done, with impunity in Iraq.
Wars might be hell, but they
have their up side for business. Bechtel and Halliburton might be somewhat
impeded in the way they do business here in the states, but in Iraq
it is anything goes. One of the first edicts Bremer signed was giving
immunity from Iraqi laws to U.S. contractors and other western firms
doing business in Iraq.
Americans are concerned with
the suffering of their soldier children, dead and injured and in peril.
It is hard to get exercised over spending tax money for other purposes,
beyond that of the tardily produced body and Hummer armor, all the equipment
and infrastructure large armies require. The last thing on most minds
is the fact that the Bush administration has attempted, however ineptly,
to remake Iraq in its chosen image: a triumphal business-friendly free-market
paradise, a future Banana Republic, where those in the know profit and
those on the ground try to figure out what happened to their lives.
During the last three weeks,
television news – cable and network – have spent more time on the
dying and deaths of two individuals than they have on all the civilian
Iraqi casualties since the beginning of the war.
One of the deaths, of Pope
John Paul II, certainly deserved coverage, though not the wall-to-wall
reporting on his life -- highlights highlighted, criticisms downplayed.
Doubtless a great man and, perhaps, soon-to-be saint, passing the founder
of Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva, who John Paul II fast-tracked as the
quickest canonization, a mere 27 years after Escriva's death.
The other death coverage, Terri
Schiavo’s, focused on a woman with fewer accomplishments, the chief
one being losing a lot of weight in a fairly short period of time, a
leading cause of the calamity that befell her.
The intercession of Congress
provided the final media propellent for Schiavo’s notoriety. Her cause
fit the conservative right-wing’s continuing attack on the “activist
judiciary,” regardless of the fact that the most prominent of the
judges involved was both Republican and religious, showing the far-right
is willing to sacrifice anyone in pursuit of its goal – the end of
coequal three-branch government.
Schiavo’s parents, either
wittingly or unwittingly, turned their daughter into a cash cow for
the last seven years, a collection plate for a variety of pro-life organizations
Pope John Paul II served as pontiff for more than a quarter of a century.
He fulfilled, so the story goes, the last of the Lady of Fatima’s
predictions, by being shot by a would-be assassin. John Paul II’s
mix of fundamental Polish Catholicism and pure anti-Communism, encased
in a kindly and worldly demeanor, won him the regard of a large portion
of the world.
President Bush is breaking
tradition by attending the pope’s funeral, the first sitting president
to do so, but the times have changed: George W. Bush sets his own traditions,
while cementing his ties with the faith-based communities of the planet.
Before heading off to the Vatican,
the president awarded the first Medal of Honor of the Iraq war, posthumously,
to Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, for valor above
and beyond the call of duty. The award was made on the anniversary of
Smith’s death. Given the description of the incident that led to the
honor, the medal could be dispensed more frequently than once, given
the nature of the Iraq conflict.
The firefight came about when
his men were creating a temporary jail for captured Iraqis when they
were set upon by a 100 members of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Smith
held them off with a .50 caliber machine gun till he was killed. Building
a temporary prison was certainly putting the cart before the horse,
given the circumstances, but it was fitting that a brave single soldier
got some attention in the midst of the avalanche of coverage afforded
Schiavo and the pope. But ordinary Iraqis have been, and are, paying
a high price for their liberation. And the Bush administration is more
than willing for them to pay that price.
The hope of 24/7 television
news is that there is so much time to fill that every once in a while
something of substance will be uttered or revealed. Alas, experience
has shown that not to be the case. A viewer of the Schiavo and Pope’s
coverage must leave the surface and go to print. The television age
has paradoxically left people more informed and more ignorant at the
During this period of selective
mourning, the White House oversaw the release of yet another not-so-independent
commission’s report, one reviewing the intelligence failures of all
the pre-9/11 spook organizations. It went out of its way to claim, a
point the White House emphasized, that no political pressure was exercised
to gain the faulty intelligence the Bush administration was so eager
to spread about and act upon. Most of that scandal was buried under
the two death watches on TV and administration spin was hardly necessary.
But it isn’t an intelligence failure that the number of Iraqi civilian
deaths still remains either contested or unknown – pick your own figure:
ten thousand or over a hundred thousand – but a more troubling failure:
that so few Americans even want to know.
There used to be “Two Nixons.”
Now we have Two Bushes. And I don’t mean father and son. One President
Bush rejects government and the other projects its power. The first
George W. stands before file cabinets in West Virginia containing U.S.
Treasury bonds backing Social Security and pronounces them all but worthless.
The second interrupts his vacation and flies back from his beloved ranch
in Crawford to sign the Terri Schiavo law in his pajamas.
The second Bush wages preemptive
war, deposes Saddam Hussein, sacrifices Americans and Iraqis and ends
up being praised by liberal organs such as The New Republic for his
daring do, or, the results of his daring do: removing a tyrant from
his throne and letting Iraqis wave purple fingertips after voting in
the first post-Saddam election. The first Bush prattles on about getting
the government off the backs of people and wants the “death” tax
In the Nixon era, there were
similar divergent Nixons: one broke from Republican convention and opened
up China to our government bonds (U.S. imports) and its goods (China’s
exports); the other Nixon broke into the Watergate for still unclear
reasons and ignored the law whenever and wherever he could, stomping
on various folks’ civil liberties along the way.
We know what happened to President
Nixon: resignation in disgrace. His fate, though, is not likely to befall
President Bush. If 19 Viet Cong had managed to hijack commercial jets
and fly them into the Pentagon and the newly built World Trade Center
towers, President Nixon, it is safe to say, would not have been driven
from office during his second term.
Both versions of George W.
Bush – the resolute pro-government liberator or the ridiculous anti-government
libertarian – reaped more benefits from 9/11 than recriminations.
Bush promises to save us from our previous vulnerability, even though
he had received a summer of 2001 briefing on how Osama bin Laden wanted
to attack America. Sept. 11 freed Bush’s hand and the hands of his
most bellicose advisors. The map of the Middle East certainly looks
different now: two large countries now belong to us – in the former
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s formulation: you break it, you own
It is clear we hope to control
Iraq eventually in the old fashioned way: behind the scenes. The White
House is attempting to help mold a government which can be an accommodating
front, a show to the world, which will nonetheless cooperate with the
administration’s wishes. Saudi Arabia used to be the model – not
for the government, but for the cooperation – but now even Bush might
be rethinking that relationship.
For Afghanistan, the model
might be Colombia, insofar as the U.S. military is supposedly going
to assist the Afghan government in an attempt to curtail the poppy and
heroin production that is currently flourishing there. We have been
doing that for decades in Columbia, without crippling the cocaine trade.
Bill Clinton didn’t have
sufficient cover to become the fierce dispenser of military might. He
was lampooned by some Republicans, including Bush himself, for heaving
missiles at various tents and camels in the middle east. Given the constant
attacks on Clinton, it can only be imagined what resistance he would
have met if he had done more to attack al-Qaida after the USS Cole and
the embassy bombings in Africa, much less the first World Trade Center
attack. The only military force that was approved of was when Clinton
sent a Tomahawk missile into Iraq – for its plot to kill George H.
W. Bush in Kuwait.
Nixon and Bush share a variety
of connections, beyond the Bush family's ties to Nixon’s early political
career. Nixon was a wartime president, so is President Bush. Nixon began
to reduce the number of American troops in Vietnam and Bush must start
extracting large numbers from Iraq by the start of the 2008 campaign.
As Richard Nixon changed his
cold war warrior image by dealing with China, Bush has shed his opposition
to nation building: two countries are currently under construction.
History, though written by winners, can at times appear neutral: Bad
policy every once in a while can produce good results. Utter disaster
is the only thing that prevents silver linings from being seen from
sufficient distance. An altered Middle East -- if it ends up better
than it was before 9/11 -- will likely be judged a Bush triumph.
A bickering House of Representatives
can’t get its ethics committee act together to investigate the alleged
further improprieties of the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but the
White House can certainly energize the Labor Department to investigate
According to the N.Y. Times,
the Bush White House wants to “ferret out and deter corruption.”
Certain labor leaders have been lining their pockets with “hundreds
of thousands of dollars” – amounts almost as large as Mrs. Tom DeLay
and his daughter have been paid for their sweat and toil in the DeLay
campaign shop the last few years. The number of audits of unions will
increase, the Department of Labor announced.
It is difficult not to see
this new concentration on union corruption as payback for labor’s
support of John Kerry in the 2004 election. The Bush White House has
trouble being good winners. Its mean streak is as large as the one John
Bolton, President Bush’s choice for UN ambassador, is said to have:
the phrase used to describe Bolton – a “kiss-up, kick-down sort
of guy” – certainly sticks in the mind. The Bush White House does
like to keep kicking: instead of taking satisfaction at all Big Labor
lost for its total embrace of Kerry – money, prestige, support throughout
the rank and file – the administration still wants to punish it further.
Majority Leader DeLay managed
to change the ethics committee in size and substance – oops, sorry,
Speaker Dennis Hastert made the changes – after it had the nerve to
slap DeLay’s wrist a couple times during the last term. DeLay did
allow the rule change eliminating the need to resign if he was indicted
to be rescinded, but all the other DeLay-friendly changes remain in
Republicans had made the ethics
committee something less of a paper tiger after they captured the House
in the mid-90s, but times change and DeLay and his close friend, Speaker
Hastert, want the clock turned back to the good old days. Republicans
on the ethics committee now promise they will investigate the DeLay
further, if the Democrats accept the new rule changes. The Dems still
The public is learning how
easy it is to change things now that the Republicans are in control.
Seeing how quickly you can write a law for only one individual (Terri
Schiavo) and have it passed by Congress and get the president to fly
across the country to sign it in the middle of the night was illuminating.
They can get things done pronto. The estate tax has been around for
a long time, but the don’t-tax-the-rich Republicans are now ready
to push it off a cliff.
And, it appears, Republicans
intend to do away with the filibuster when it comes to judicial appointments,
a way of doing Senate business more revered than the estate tax or easy-come-easy-go
ethics committees. And who knew it was so simple to do? All you need
is to ask Vice President Cheney, who presides over the Senate, to say
the filibuster is unconstitutional, and get a majority vote, and, voila,
bye-bye filibuster and the super majority of 60 votes.
This so-called “nuclear”
option certainly didn’t take a nuclear physicist to think up. Why
didn’t anyone think of it before? Perhaps, because, like the Terri
Schiavo law and naming the leading administration critic of the UN to
become its ambassador and turning the labor department into a law enforcement
entity with one mission – to police labor – it isn’t a very good
But no matter. President Bush
still thinks his second term victory came with a mandate, something
larger than the barely 3 percent mandate it was. He wants to extend
Republican control, not just over Congress, but the courts, too. And
a simple majority to confirm judges, including Supreme Court judges,
would allow him to do just that. That nearly half the electorate, those
who voted for John Kerry, might not want 51 Senators to pack the judiciary
with right-wing zealots extreme enough to draw the threat of a filibuster
from Democrats (less than ten nominees out of over 200 so far) doesn’t
seem to faze President Bush.
Perhaps the strongest impediment
to the nuclear option may be that Tom DeLay needs to approve it and
that might have to wait on a few first-class golfing junkets to Scotland
for DeLay and his cronies to take place before he can make up his mind.
One thing you can say about
the new pope is that he is happy to have the job. Almost as happy as
President Bush now seems. Recently, an ebullient Bush told the Society
of Newspaper Editors he’s “enjoying” himself: Now more than ever
– he doesn’t have to face the voters again.
But Benedict XVI has been happy
from the get-go. His first appearance on the balcony above St. Peter’s
Square was full of smiles. One might have thought that the weight of
the position itself and taking over from the quarter century service
of John Paul II would have set the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s visage
in serious and somber repose. But, no, he looked delighted.
The new pope did mention then
his revered and still mourned predecessor: “After the great Pope John
Paul II, the cardinals have elected me – a simple, humble worker in
the vineyard of the Lord” – that from the former second in command
of one of the most powerful and wealthy enterprises in the world. Contrary
to Benedict’s words, I don’t detect a lot of humility in that declaration:
Perhaps it was lost in translation.
Benedict XVI hasn’t lost
yet his joy at his selection; he has been telling stories in a charm
offensive of how he prayed to the Lord not to be chosen – but only
to set up a punch line: “Evidently...He didn’t listen to me.”
Ratzinger was John Paul II’s
choice to be pope, coming to the job the way the first president Bush
did: after serving as the head of the CIA, or the Catholic Church’s
version of the CIA, the Congregation For the Defense of the Faith. It’s
a popular method of advancement these days: Russia’s President Putin
ascended to his post after running the KGB.
Many claim Benedict XVI will
be a kinder, gentler version of his old self: the office will change
him. That bit of conventional wisdom used to be in vogue: High office
alters the person who occupies it.
Well, that may be, but a lot
of contemporary history refutes that comforting claim. The Columbia
University historian, Alan Brinkley, has pointed out that a number of
rich business men have become president, but they put business interests
behind the interests of the public good. They adopt a style of governing
that transcends their usual behavior. Brinkley singled out George W.
Bush as a man the office hasn’t changed: he appears to be the same
guy he was before he entered the White House.
One could argue Bill Clinton
took on a presidential persona as president – or, at least, he adopted
one early in life and kept it going – though given Clinton’s behavior,
whatever higher calling he might have strived for turned out to be unreachable.
President Reagan certainly changed in office, but that was largely biology
and the assassination attempt’s resulting damage.
But, the hope is that Benedict
XVI will change, become less doctrinaire, more inclusive. I doubt it.
His happiness at having the office will no doubt lessen and his advisers
will get him to say publicly the right things after saying the wrong
things: At his inaugural Mass last Sunday he reached out to other Christians,
Jews and “non-believers”; the next day he had to repair his gaffe
and include Muslims, too.
Jane Fonda is another player
in the can-you-change sweepstakes. As an actress, she is used to changing
roles – as was Reagan – and she has been many things: starlet, political
activist, trophy wife of a media baron. But it is the “Hanoi Jane”
role she is attempting to shake. Most who passed through the anti-Vietnam
war movement recall Fonda’s trip to Hanoi as a small thing. Back then,
there was no cable news or 24/7 news cycle. What was shown at the time
was one still photo of Fonda in Vietnam, wearing a dopey hat sitting
by a North Vietnamese weapon. It was a frivolous thing: Actress visits
But film of Fonda in North
Vietnam has been shown more the last two weeks than it ever had been
shown before. It has been given the Swift Boat Veterans treatment: as
John Kerry’s purple hearts were denigrated, so is Fonda’s motives
and character. Her acts of contrition have been mocked. Conservatives
seem to believe no one changes – at least someone like Jane Fonda.
But many claim that others do – such as Cardinal Ratzinger and even
President Bush. Their offices will elevate them. That, of course, remains
to be seen. In one case, it hasn’t happened yet.
Who knew that one of the last
stops on President Bush’s 60 day Social Security road show would be
the East Room of the White House?
During Bush’s April 28 prime-time
press conference, the first of his second term, the president continued
to do his Social Security bait-and-switch routine – but so flagrantly
that the general public is beginning to notice. First he claimed: “When
the baby boomers start retiring in three years, Social Security will
start heading toward the red. In 2017, the system will start paying
out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. Every year after
that, the shortfall will get worse, and by 2041 Social Security will
be bankrupt.” And, he continued, “Any reform of Social Security
must replace empty promises being made to younger workers with real
assets, real money.” Later, he explained, “And all that’s left
behind is file cabinets full of IOUs.”
But, when extolling his plans
for privatization, Bush said, “I know some Americans have reservations
about investing in the stock market, so I propose that one investment
option consist entirely of treasury bonds, which are backed by the full
faith and credit of the United States government.”
Those must be the good government
bonds, the ones that China buys so many of, whereas Social Security
only gets the bad treasury bonds, the ones that are merely “IOUs.”
And, it is no one’s definition
of bankruptcy – not even the new business-friendly bankruptcy law
just enacted – that Social Security will be bankrupt in 2041 when
– if nothing changes – it will only be able to pay out some 70 percent
plus of promised benefits. Creditors will not drive you into bankruptcy
court if you can pay 72 cents on the dollar.
Then, President Bush put forth
the so-called means-tested benefit reduction scheme, proposed by Robert
Pozen, the head of MFS, a large mutual fund company. It is one of the
under reported realities of Bush’s privatization scheme that Wall
Street firms are not interested in handling the stock accounts of low
income workers. They want to deal with real money – from middle to
upper-class-income workers’ contributions.
Many of the press went into
a swoon over the notion that Bush wants to give to the poor and stick
it to the rich with his means-testing scheme. But this proposal should
seem familiar, since it all along has been one half of Bush’s privatization
scheme: his plan requires lowering benefits and forcing workers to make
up the difference with so-called private accounts.
Bush’s version of the Pozen
plan leaves lowest wage workers' benefits right where they would be
-- the poor’s benefits will not “rise faster,” as reported --
under the current Social Security system. That avoids the bureaucratic
hassle of dealing with their puny private accounts and leaves the higher
income workers with decreased benefits – and therefore eager, the
White House presumes, for private accounts. Bush wants the cuts as much
as the accounts.
The benefit cuts are the stick;
the private accounts are the carrot. Congress will not lower benefits
without offering some fig leaf and the ballyhooed possibility of making
money in the stock market serves that purpose.
Bush’s Social Security push
is yet another version of his tax policy – he wants to reduce the
amount the wealthy pay: private accounts likely will help only upper-income
Americans, financial firms and their shareholders, Bush’s base.
When it sinks in that every
worker above the $25,000 cutoff will suffer benefit reductions, the
Bush/Pozen plan will go nowhere. But there might be an unintended consequence.
The large majority above the cutoff that stands to lose so much down
the road might find it more palatable to accept small tax increases
in the future -- by raising the income cap, now $90,000, subject to
FICA taxes. The cap limit could grow gradually over time, thereby taking
care of whatever solvency problem the Bush/Pozen plan claims to fix.
But President Bush says, read my statements: no new taxes. If nothing
is done and there is a shortfall in 2041 – not, by any means, a certainty
if the economy improves – just redistribute the benefits to allow
for the 28 percent that is missing. If Bush really means,”Take it
from the rich,” take it then, not now.
Laura Bush’s recent appearance
at the White House Correspondents’ dinner – her ribald monologue
about her husband, the president – has caused a minor stir. A number
of conservatives are upset, given the subject of her jokes: male strippers,
desperate housewives, fondling a horse’s private parts. The First
Lady was lucky her routine was televised on C-SPAN, not on PBS, where
it would have been shredded with edits decreed by the newly censorious
But her comedy routine was
a case of Laura Bush letting her class slip show. Just as President
Bush in his prime time news conference attempted to put some space between
himself and conservative attacks on the judiciary, Laura was sent out
to put a little distance between the right-wing puritans and the Bush
family. George W. has done such a good job portraying himself as a regular
guy, Laura needed to remind the media elite that the Bushes were sophisticated
and with-it, not fuddy-duddy prudes. They aren’t the media elite,
but better: the actual elite. Laura Bush’s job at the correspondents'
dinner was, in part, to pander to the Christie Todd Whitman, Arnold
Schwarzenegger side of the GOP -- therefore, the jokes about Chippendale’s,
the male strip clubs, and the wife abandoned by her early-to-bed husband
and so on.
As the president often tells
the world, he made a good choice when he married Laura Bush. It is impossible
to imagine him married to a lawyer, a Hillary Clinton sort. A school
teacher, librarian, is just right. The sexual nature of Laura Bush’s
humor was to remind everyone that here was a woman of warm sensuality,
but a woman under control, possessed of a wholesome licentiousness masked
by proper manners: hidden but not repressed. What has been hidden, repressed,
though, is Laura Bush’s long-held pro-choice position on abortion.
For quite some time that has been hidden in plain sight.
Another example of hiding in
plain sight is Michael Jackson: By being as weird as possible, nothing
in his life would seem weird or deviant. What his ongoing trial has
thus far described, nonetheless, is a counter fairy tale – that of
the miserable millionaire.
Any jury could conclude Jackson
lives a pathetic, unhappy life, since so much of it seems to revolve
around arranging young boys to share his bed, whether molested or not
– at least for the last sixteen years, since the lawsuits began and
millions have been paid out. Most everyone who steps foot on Jackson’s
property Neverland, employees or victims or guests, comes with a resume
full of petty crime and a checkered past. They may be moths drawn to
the flame, but the flame is fueled by Jackson’s money and celebrity.
A third current confluence
of sex and power is the case of Pfc. Lynndie England, of Abu Ghraib
fame. England had decided to plead guilty and hope for a reduced sentence.
She intended to absolve the upper-ups in the military of any blame for
the Abu Ghraib abuses, the photos and sexual hijinks, and take it all
upon herself. The disturbing pictures seen round the world were only
for the amusement of the guards, she said.
But, evidently, no one informed
the judge, Col. James Pohl, of England’s patriotic plan and, later,
after he heard the testimony of Pvt. Charles Graner, the so-called Abu
Ghraib ringleader and father of England’s child, Pohl threw out her
guilty plea and entered one of not guilty.
Graner evidently has a photo-fetish,
since he was taking nude photos of England and himself months before
the Abu Ghraib shots were posed. He may live in a fantasy world as starved
as Michael Jackson’s -- though, in Graner’s case, it includes whether
the chain of command approved of, or set the climate for, the abuses
at Abu Ghraib.
There are levels of approved
public expression of matters sexual in our society: Laura Bush kept
within the bounds of her crowd of class and privilege. Michael Jackson
follows in the long tradition of Hollywood-type celebrities who attempt
to get away with the outer reaches of what they are allowed. But Pvts.
England and Graner are not protected by class or money or celebrity.
They did what many ordinary people appear to be doing these days, living
a self-invented fantasy life, but they did it in the wrong place at
the wrong time: desperate they may be – housewives, they are not.
The lesson of the week appears
to be “small things matter” – at least, that’s what many take
to be the upshot of the Newsweek case: the magazine, amidst a firestorm
of criticism, “retracted” its claim that a report of a Quran being
flushed down a Guantanamo Bay toilet had been verified, but only after
its story of the desecration supposedly fueled bloody riots in Afghanistan
The White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, said, Newsweek’s
“report had real consequences” – unlike most journalism, McClellan
implied. The cause and effect, though, is suspect: as if the earlier
Abu Ghraib photos and accounts of using religion as a weapon in interrogation
techniques hadn’t caused discontent in the Islamic world – much
less the bombing of mosques and the killing of believers in Afghanistan
Similarly, some Americans are blaming the lack of armor on Humvees for
the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq, rather than the fact that the military
war planners make soldiers drive back and forth on unsecured roads like
moving duck targets in carnival midway attractions.
The White House is happy it has found a new scapegoat for Islamic unrest:
the media, the messenger – in this instance, Newsweek. The Islamic
demonstrations reportedly are not entirely spontaneous. They are whipped
up by jihadist versions of Karl Rove, extremists who know how to manipulate
public opinion. They make the three-colored signs depicted in the AP
photo showing a Muslim cleric at a demonstration: BUSH SHOULD APOLOGISE
FOR DESECRATION OF QURAN. The audience those signs are directed at is
English reading. In any case, two generals in the know, Richard Myers
and Carl Eichenberry, said the Afghan violence wasn’t “necessarily”
about the Quran flap.
Desecrating a stateside motel’s Gideon Bible wouldn’t likely cause
the same reaction here, unless Christians were being killed, rounded
up, imprisoned, and made up most of the collateral damage.
Though many in the military have decried the abuses already reported
at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo – claiming such abusive treatment doesn’t
result in good intelligence – mistreating Islam’s holy book doesn’t
seem far-fetched, given the sort of behavior that already has come to
But this sort of diversion is a godsend for the Bush administration.
It allows its supporters to beat up on the press, while justifying its
own derision and stand-offishness, and allow for further clamp-downs
and calls for media cooperation, otherwise know as self censorship.
Another small matter last week was the fact that no one bothered to
tell the president that federal employees and tourists were fleeing
government buildings in Washington, D.C., running for their lives, including
the at-work vice president and the first lady, who was put into a bomb
shelter, when a small plane came within three miles of the White House.
The president was bicycling in the nearby mountains and doubtless didn’t
want to be disturbed. Of course, this brings back memories of 9/11,
when the president sat silently on a stage for seven minutes after hearing
about the second plane striking the World Trade Center.
The Capitol evacuation alarm may have been an overreaction on the part
of Homeland Security, just as the demonstrations and riots are an overreaction
to the Newsweek notice of the Quran abuse – though not necessarily
an overreaction to the war in Iraq. A White House national security
adviser, Stephen Hadley, claimed on Fox News Sunday that the president
was happy with the procedures in place and didn’t complain of not
being told about the threat and the alert. As on 9/11, Dick Cheney was
on the scene and ready to take charge.
And another small thing was Bob Woodward’s remark on the Chris Matthews
Show that Vice President Cheney may be the dark horse of the 2008 presidential
campaign. Such speculation, like the lack of respect shown religion
in the treatment of Muslim detainees and prisoners, was old news, but,
since Bob Woodward promoted it, a ripple of notice followed. At this
point, odds do favor a Cheney/Bush Republican ticket in ‘08 – Jeb
Bush in the vice presidential slot. But the war in Iraq and the economy
at home will dictate the candidates and the outcome of that election,
neither of them small things. Or, at least, that is the hope.
Picture this: a long line at
the United counter at O’Hare and the would-be travelers have just
learned that their flight to California has been cancelled because a
crew hasn’t shown up. And what do these folks do? Complain vociferously?
Attack the United workers? No, they sympathized with the absent pilots
and flight attendants. Why? Because the day before they lost their pension
plan. The crowd disperses, deprecating not the United employees, but
the bankruptcy judge who allowed the decision to dump the pension plan
in the lap of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal
agency that oversees private pension plans. “What was that judge thinking!”
one woman exclaimed as she waited patiently to make other arrangements.
A fantasy? No, it happened and my source – my wife, no anonymity here
– said it was the least angry line of people that had been bumped
from a flight she had ever seen.
The public is catching on to the deal being doled out to workers generally.
It isn’t management, but the workers at United who end up paying for
all the tumult in the airlines industry. It’s not their fault that
United overexpanded during the 1990s stock market bubble; not their
fault that low-cost, bottom-feeder airlines can use the physical infrastructure
created by the legacy airlines and pay none of the costs, but yet reap
the benefits. It’s not their fault that United didn’t make a good
bet on the oil futures market, like Southwest airlines did. And United’s
workers weren’t responsible for 9/11 and its effects on airline travel.
Progressive economists have offered a number of solutions for the plight
of legacy airlines like United. There could be a 1 or 2 dollar surcharge
on airline tickets to restore the under-funded pension plans. A tax
solution, generated from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, was reluctantly
brokered in 1992 by Elizabeth Dole, when she was the first President
Bush’s Secretary of Labor, to help fund a mine workers retirees’
In 1919, legacy railroads created the industry-wide Railroad Retirement
plan. Similarly, it is foolish to see United as a single company in
trouble – its troubles come from industry-wide practices and the solution
is industry wide, too: All airline workers could be put into an airline
retirement fund similar to the railroad fund.
Of course, all such solutions are anathema to the current Bush administration:
It’s another case where the son differs from the father. It’s sink
or swim out there – for workers, but not for bosses. The buck –
or lack of bucks – is passed down to employees. They shoulder most
of the burden.
Recent reports make that clear: In April the Wall Street Journal pointed
out that “The U.S. Labor Department says that hourly wages for private
sector workers who aren’t bosses rose 2.6 percent to nearly $16 an
hour between March 2004 and March 2005, which is short of the 3.1 percent
increase in consumer prices over that period.” In other words, wages
aren’t even keeping up with inflation.
Regardless, workers still are blamed: There are the perennial complaints
about the wages paid union workers at McCormick Place and continuing
dire predictions of what those costs will do to convention business
in Chicago. What goes unsaid by those complaining – but not undone
by businesses everywhere – is that other people would work for lower
pay – and undocumented workers would even work for less, practically
for free. It’s the same kind of world-wide economic policy the president
of Mexico, Vincente Fox, espouses: the preeminence of cheap labor above
But, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “Not everyone’s wages are
sinking.” Yet, for United workers, the sinking will go on after they
retire, given the caps on payments the PBGC will make to pensioners
if it takes over United’s plan. The Bush administration is all for
caps – when they limit what is paid out, not when they are raised
to take in more revenue, as in the case of the easiest possible Social
Security fix. Indeed, one reason for the forecasted 75-year shortfall
in Social Security is that wages for most people haven’t gone up at
the rate Social Security actuaries had predicted. What goes around,
The runaway bride, Jennifer
Wilbanks, might have finally run away from the media spotlight, but
her flight has left behind some interesting issues. Chief among them
is what TV journalism, especially cable, thinks is important: A possible
dead white woman on the verge of a major event, in this case, her wedding,
with a likely perp at hand, the husband-to-be, trying to look innocent.
Long ago, the film maker Alfred Hitchcock, after he was asked, How do
you keep an audience’s attention?, was credited with saying, “Torture
the women.” It was always white women, though, and, in Hitchcock’s
movies, preferably glamorous blondes. TV carries on this tradition,
with the added fillip of violence paired with a sentimental occasion,
the imminent birth of a child at Christmas in the Laci Peterson case,
the impending Spring nuptials in Wilbanks’.
The indicted runaway bride has now pled no contest to making a false
statement and has been sentenced to 2 years of probation, but her actual
crime seems to be that she hadn’t been killed. Doubtless, Wilbanks
could have escaped any kind of prosecution if she hadn’t made up her
abduction story – and an ordinary racist-tinged fairy tale it was:
An odd couple – her in-laws in disguise? – take her far, far away,
but she finally escapes, appearing at a convenience store in Albuquerque,
But the real fantasy tale had been played out on the other side of the
continent, in Duluth, Ga.: There it was sex and death, the suspect fiance,
the searching of vacant lands by hordes of helpers, the satellite dishes
and the on-scene reports, the testimonies of friends and family. Perhaps
she ran away? How could anyone think that? Run away from Prince Charming,
her wonderful new family-to-be, years of marital bliss ahead?
At the time, all the cable shows were tired of the unhealthy issues
of the Michael Jackson trial and wanted to get back to what they know
best: dead white women and murderous husbands and wailing relatives.
The new reality television shows so popular the last few years didn’t
make the news into entertainment; those shows are the offspring of news
departments. Facts aren’t often collections of seamless, compelling
narratives, but over the years countless reporters and news producers
have been trying to turn them into interesting stories in order to capture
the public’s attention. And now everyone wants to get on the tube.
The John Bolton confirmation show has captured the public and the Senate’s
attention, not because of Mr. Bolton’s long history of ideological
opposition to the United Nations as a helpful institution, but because
of his runaway bride side: the bad boss, the spiteful guy, the office
bully, all those human interest qualities that play so well on TV these
The Democrats have mastered what the Republicans have been teaching
the last decade: Go for the jugular, but the jugular has to be personality,
not policy. Yet it was Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich’s tears
over the possibility of Bolton being confirmed as ambassador to the
U.N. that grabbed media coverage; Voinovich’s show of emotion rivaled
any of the cast of the runaway bride show, previous to her surfacing
in New Mexico.
And, the Republican-dominated Senate now has a runaway center, the soft
14, moderates of both parties who make up the new D.C. reality series,
"Survivor: Filibuster Island." The 14 hope to make up the
winning tribe; they stabbed their former team-mates in the back, made
fruitful coalitions, and have turned themselves into a force to be reckoned
with. They do look like a typical – though elderly – "Survivor"
The stage is set: Television news is looking forward to the summer’s
big blockbuster events: Chief Justice Rehnquist finally resigns and
who gets replace him? Will President Bush serve up a picturesque name
for the vacant seat? Perhaps: He or she must really be a doozy if the
president fears 60 votes would be needed to confirm. And what if –
God forbid! – there are two vacancies?
Meanwhile, there is Iraq to cover, which is the same-old, same-old,
as boring and upsetting as the Michael Jackson trial.
The word “news” of course is three quarters new and new, meaning
fresh, is what sells, as long as it is wrapped in the oldest of clothes,
but clothes that are gaudy and revealing of the most popular and shared
human foibles, the stuff that grabs us all.
Three decades late Deep Throat
decided to take the advice he gave to the young journalist Bob Woodward:
“Follow the money.” That famous line – more a screen writer’s
coinage, it turns out, than Deep Throat’s – was uttered by Hal Holbrook
in the movie version of All the President’s Men, which immortalized
the careers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and now Mark Felt, the
former number two man in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who has been confirmed
by the Washington Post as the reporters’ mythical source, Deep Throat.
Mark Felt’s family has been very up front about the motivation behind
their eleventh hour revelation: they hope to gain some of the financial
benefit so many in the past have acquired because of Deep Throat’s
role in the downfall of Richard Nixon.
Felt had become a mentor of sorts to Woodward: The young Navy man, by
Woodward’s own account, cultivated older, powerful men as friends
and advisors. He had met Felt outside the White House’s Situation
Room – quite a good place for an introduction – and more or less
threw himself at the dapper G-man. Woodward had found a future source.
When the motley group of ex-CIA assets and intelligence retirees were
caught, largely by accident, in the offices of the national Democratic
party housed in the Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex in the summer
of 1972, I was finishing a book on the Harrisburg 7, one of Hoover’s
FBI-inspired conspiracy prosecutions. Then, the Watergate caper seemed
to be yet another of Nixon’s former Attorney General and current head
of CREEP -- the campaign arm of the Nixon administration -- John Mitchell’s
bag jobs: Nixon’s people had been breaking into the homes of people
connected to the anti-war movement for some time.
At the time, Leonard Boudin, one of the Harrisburg 7 defense attorneys,
was also the lawyer for Daniel Ellsberg, who had brought the Pentagon
Papers to the attention of the public. Ellsberg had been harassed by
the same Watergate crew: they had broken into his psychiatrist’s office.
My book appeared and Nixon won a second-term landslide victory. So much
for having any influence on his career, I thought then. But, before
the election it was only the Washington Post that seemed to care about
the summer burglary – it was a local story, after all – and the
Post’s two young reporters kept at it. The rest of the press and the
Congress joined in later – partly because the Vietnam war was still
going on, badly. Watergate became the loose thread that finally undid
Nixon’s administration, but the motivation to pull at it came from
the anti-war sentiment growing throughout the country.
All of this is ancient history, as old as the 91 year-old Mr. Felt.
But over the years Felt watched Woodward and Bernstein reap the rewards
of Watergate and then watched Nixon be rehabilitated and feted by some,
and saw many of the low-level actors become respected and listened to,
the current radio talk show host, G. Gordon Liddy, most prominent among
them. And Felt discovered that his government pension did not make him
a wealthy man. His daughter had large bills to pay for the education
of her children. They decided to cash in. Well, best of luck to them,
but it might be too late to go to that well again.
Amid the flood of information that Deep Throat’s unmasking has spawned,
a few things have been neglected: one is that the FBI looked both foolish
and inept back then, embarrassed by a string of unholy excesses committed
during Hoover’s erratic last years. Its PR image of straight shooters
had been shot: Perhaps, Felt, in an ironic way, was attempting to rehabilitate
it. Another is that back in the early 70s the world seemed darker than
it does now. Nixon was waging a war on terror, but he considered American
citizens the terrorists. And some of them – the violent Weatherman
– tried to look the part.
But a darkness did cover the land, unlike today, because of how the
collecting and disseminating of the news happened then as opposed to
now. We were bombing murky jungles in Vietnam in 1972 and there wasn’t
any 24/7 coverage, no bright internet, no email, no talk radio, no bloggers,
just at first, in the case of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein. Now
there is the sunlight of media everywhere and, because of that, what
goes on these days appears far less sinister, even though we have an
administration in power that, like Nixon’s, is full of secrets and
lies and our soldiers are fighting in sand-swept deserts and towns,
killing and being killed, in the broad, unmerciful daylight.
Alas, the press – especially
cable TV “news” – doesn’t have Michael Jackson to kick around
anymore, but luckily they do have Democratic National Committee Chairman
Howard Dean to pick on.
Once the Jackson “not guilty” verdicts came in, the Jackson media
bubble burst. If he had been found guilty there would have been weeks
and weeks of TV analysis, book deals galore, the rehashing of salacious
stories and, given the protection of a guilty verdict, the rumor boil
could be lanced and even more sordid tales would spill out. But, “Not
Guilty” puts a stop to the flood: No one wants to read libel-leery,
tip-toeing accounts of the trial, or watch hour-long television retrospectives;
no small industry of pedofile experts will rise up, no “Jacko in Jail”
continuing coverage will commence.
But, unlike Michael Jackson, the Howard Dean story will continue and,
though the audience for it is far smaller, those who care are just as
passionate as Jackson’s fans and detractors.
Both Dean and Jackson attract notice for show-biz reasons. Dean became
the rock star phenom of the 2004 election. Vice President Cheney might
find Dean’s allure mysterious – he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity
that other than Dean’s mother, no one Cheney has met (!) loves Howard
Dean – but anyone in the entertainment world can see Dean’s appeal:
He’s the guy with a garage band who made it big, the grunge politician,
who flamed out spectacularly and then picked himself up, dusted himself
off, and reclaimed the public spotlight.
Jackson, though his career is longer, has had his up and downs, too.
His current court victory is both an up and a down. The jury found too
much reasonable doubt to convict Jackson – and that was about its
only show of reason. Juries in the prominent cases of late, most of
them in California, appear to decide guilt or innocence based on their
feelings about the victims. If they like the victim more than the accused,
they will convict. If not, they will acquit.
California juries liked Laci Peterson more than Scott, they liked Robert
Blake more than they liked his wife who was killed, and ditto in the
O.J. Simpson matter. In the Big Apple’s Martha Stewart case, the “victim”
was felt to be not the government, but every poor sap who lost money
in the corporate stock frauds of the late 90s: Martha was sent to the
slammer. Jackson’s jury of peers liked the King of Pop more than they
liked the accuser and his mother – the child did pay for her sins.
And Jackson was their neighbor. They shared the defense view: the mother
and her children were gypsies, grifters, tramps who should be run out
The entire jury and the four alternates assembled for a post-verdict
press conference; they tried to watch what they said, but they didn’t
seem to realize they were being watched by millions. One woman juror
couldn’t stop rolling her eyes when she refused to discuss the mother
of the accuser – she thought it was her words that mattered. When
pressed for her thoughts about a man in his 40s sleeping with young
boys, Juror No. 10 said, “What mother in her right mind would allow
that to happen? Just freely volunteer your child to sleep with someone.”
But her horror stopped with the accuser’s mother and did not carry
over to the man who brought about the arrangement.
Meanwhile, Howard Dean is slapped around by Republicans for every alleged
outrageous remark he utters – and by Democrats, too. Part of the so-called
Democratic leadership, Sens. Biden, Lieberman and Feinstein, Rep. Nancy
Pelosi, and the failed veep candidate, John Edwards, claimed Dean didn't
speak for them. But, there is no single Democratic leader, there is
a handful, Dean being one. He speaks for disaffected Dems, the Deaniacs,
when he said:“I hate Republicans and everything they stand for,”
followed later by “They’re a pretty monolithic party – they all
behave the same, they all look the same, and they all – you know,
it’s pretty much a white, Christian party.” After complaints surfaced,
Dean responded, “I don’t hate Republicans, but I sure hate what
this Republican party is doing to America.” Through his lawyer, Michael
Jackson says he will no longer invite young boys into his bed. And Howard
Dean vows to stay in his post and refuses to curb his Republican pleasing,
bad-quote-producing pronouncements. Time will tell which one breaks
his promise first.
I had looked forward to praising
Sen. Dick Durbin, but since he let the Republicans bury him before my
accolades could appear, I am left to apologize for his apology. Durbin
– perhaps by default – has become the number two Senate Democratic
leader and a chief critic of the Bush administration and, more and more,
what he has to say counts – or so it would appear, given the ferocity
of the Republican attack machine that waged war against Durbin and brought
him to heel this past week.
Durbin triggered the right-wing’s shock and awe campaign by discussing
the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a Senate speech twelve
days ago; after reading from an FBI email detailing abuses, he said,
“If I read this to you, and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent
describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you
would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets
in their gulags or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had
no concern for human beings.”
After that, the Republicans pounced. As has happened in the past, Durbin’s
attackers distorted what he actually said. Words are now radioactive,
no longer conduits of sense, and the White House and Republican politicians
just picked out the hottest ones. Even presumed literate commentators
refused to hear – or read – correctly. Their script was the same:
Durbin had slandered the American military and the soldiers risking
their lives in the Middle East, by comparing them to Nazis and Stalin
and Pol Pot.
Except that isn’t what Durbin said or did: He was quoting an FBI agent’s
account of Gitmo abuses and said that that description by itself could
be confused with other historic instances of inhumane treatment of captives
by outlaw regimes.
But, Durbin did what these days is not allowed in Bush World: he used
the words “Nazis” and “gulags” in a context involving Americans,
the most politically incorrect speech possible today. We are obviously
not Nazis – where are the ovens? – and if any one says so, he or
she is a traitor, goes the critique. If any abuses occur to people we
keep in cages it is because of “bad apples” or bored ill-trained
National Guard types like the Abu Ghraib crowd. When bad things occasionally
happen to bad people, well, that’s just the way it goes. Collateral
damage isn’t dead women and children, it’s just the unfortunate
price we have to pay to wage our war on terror.
Talk about killing the messenger: How dare a United States Senator read
from an FBI agent’s email and say what’s described therein shares
similarities with history’s great killers and madmen. The first casualty
in any war, so goes the famous quote, is truth – and it isn’t just
outright lies that occur, it is the wish to sugarcoat whatever happens,
to deny that terrible things are done in our name. Many Republicans
and a large part of the public prefer to live in denial.
Durbin’s accusers ignored what he said and claimed that he denounced
the American military and defamed all our soldiers. That, of course,
is nonsense, but when it comes to changing the subject – to making
the speaker the problem, not what is spoken about – no one does it
better than the Bush administration.
Look at the usual suspects who led the charge against Durbin: You have
the reliable pill-popping radio ranter Rush Limbaugh, half the staff
of Fox News, White House spokespeople and Republican politicians such
as junket-addict House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority
Leader Bill Frist, the physcian who chose to play Dr. Quack, dispensing
erroneous medical opinions after viewing old and edited videotape of
Terri Schiavo. Frist wanted an apology from Durbin – which was laughable,
but John McCain played the POW card and demanded an apology, too, in
order to keep his own presidential prospects open. Unfortunately, Durbin
tearfully complied. Once again, the Republicans showed their mastery
at effective and organized attack. Durbin should have pressed his own
attack; he should have said, “Don’t distort what I said. I never
maligned our troops. The conduct described by the FBI is reprehensible
and is the responsibility of this administration. It is that policy
and not the service of our soldiers that I question.” But he didn’t.
He let his foes shape their own perverse virtual reality and his apology
permitted it to prevail.
President Bush’s presidency
seems to be devoted to two strategies: one is loud – radical change
– and the other – conservative consolidation – is quiet. The first
is his attempt to overturn the status quo in the Middle East and, at
home, to undo Social Security and bury what remains of FDR's New Deal
governmental activism. Those initiatives have met with setbacks –
especially his domestic campaign to alter the nature of Social Security:
Polls show approval of the way he is handling Social Security at 25
percent, while a majority now considers the Iraq war a “mistake.”
The second Bush strategy, the consolidation of enduring long term conservative
power and influence, though, is racking up more successes. Those are
likely to continue, because they don’t face the same determined foes
his plans encounter in the Middle East.
The anticipated retirements to take place in the Supreme Court are the
most visible example of Bush’s changing the face of government. But
he already has been able to hasten the conservative overhaul of the
judicial system, begun by Ronald Reagan and continued by President Bush
I – together they appointed 60 percent of the federal judiciary –
and only partially interrupted by the two terms of Bill Clinton. Nearly
three-quarters of the judges on U.S. Court of Appeals are Republican
appointees, 10 of 13 circuit courts have Republican majorities, and
7 out of 9 Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican presidents.
George W. Bush, unlike his father, has been making conservative appointments
so extreme that even Republican Senators rebelled, halting Majority
Leader Frist’s bid to end the filibuster, in order to stop a handful
of such appointees.
Agency after agency, though, is being affected and the alterations made
are the sort that will live on long after any changes of personnel take
place. Judgeships stand out since they are life-time appointments, but,
once tampered with, smaller agencies and institutions seldom get back
what has been lost. One example is the National Endowment for the Arts,
under attack during Bush I: It survived, but was changed irrevocably.
The NEA now largely is the producer of approved public art: Shakespeare
is safe. Only writers still receive the much maligned individual fellowships
and that is because the writing of literature plays such a small role
in the culture today. A larger role is played by television and radio
and that is why Bush II is now going after the Public Broadcasting Service
and National Public Radio.
The current attack on PBS and NPR is only a shadow of the attacks on
the NEA back in the early 80s, since there is so little public demand
for it. No “Piss Christ” or chocolate-covered Karen Finley or homoerotic
photos by Robert Mapplethorpe these days, just the ghost of Bill Moyers,
who quit hosting the PBS program “Now with Bill Moyers” six months
ago. But, the Bush administration doesn’t want the abolition of PBS
and NPR – which is unlikely in any case – even though the House
is attempting to cut the funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
What the White House wants is permanent change and control.
Kenneth Tomlinson, the Chairman of the CPB, is the John Bolton of public
broadcasting, insofar as Tomlinson is its chief critic. He sees “political
bias” everywhere in PBS and NPR. Tomlinson, it has been widely reported,
hired a variety of Republican operatives, surreptitiously in one case
– including the guy who wrote the this-is-a-great-political-issue-for-us!-Terri-Schiavo
memo – to draw up black lists and to document bias in a number of
PBS and NPR programs, despite polls showing that the public didn’t
think either was a hotbed of liberal fomenters. All of this has caused
a dustup in some media quarters, but Tomlinson continues to get his
way: he made Patricia Harrison, a past co-chairwoman of the Republican
National Committee, the head of CPB.
Tomlinson, in order to correct “liberal bias” and restore “balance,”
championed a show for PBS consisting of the editorial board of the Wall
Street Journal, not a TV-friendly group, who often look sour having
to watch what they say, given that their discussions are being taped.
And doubtless NASCAR races will replace the boring “NewsHour with
Jim Lehrer” down the road. With this and other government agencies
and institutions, as in Iraq, President Bush is following the new Powell
doctrine: once you break it, you own it. At PBS and NPR these days those
who are listening can hear a lot of things shattering.
The upcoming Chicago-bound
AFL-CIO convention has been variously described by union insiders as
likely to be either a “train wreck” or “a circular firing squad.”
Talk of secession by a handful of unions from the federation has sparked
the gloom-and-doom pronouncements. But the pessimism has root causes,
mainly in the overall decline of union membership of American workers
and the resulting loss of influence in state capitals and Washington,
The Republican war against unions has been picking up steam since the
Ronald Reagan administration, when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers
in 1981, replacing them with, among others, national guard air controllers,
which resulted in some union members in the national guard having to
scab on themselves. The air traffic controllers union, PATCO, was more
or less destroyed.
It hasn’t got much better since then, despite a few bright spots.
The beleaguered president of the AFL-CIO (consisting of some 13 million
members from 57 unions), John Sweeney, recently said, “Workers are
under the biggest assault in 80 years. Now more than ever we need a
united labor movement.” But the Service Employees International Union,
the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here,
have threatened to quit the AFL-CIO. They bemoan the money and energy
spent on trying to elect two Democrats president and wish it had been
spent on “organizing.” All that is now so much spilt milk, but they
want to reduce the fees owed the national federation in order to support
their own future organizing.
Sweeney didn’t even bother to pay lip service to the long-standing
AFL-CIO policy of maintaining an ambivalent independence from political
parties and bet the house on Al Gore’s 2000 run. Though Gore won,
he lost and the AFL-CIO lost big, too. Then, Sweeney doubled his bet,
and put all his chips on the 2004 candidacy of John Kerry. Sweeney should
have resigned his post at the AFL-CIO the day after Kerry conceded,
but he didn’t. Since Sweeney continues to occupy the AFL-CIO’s 16th
street headquarters, a stone’s throw from the White House, he is faced
with an insurgency: Andy Stern, the head of the SEIU, Sweeney’s old
union, has been the most vocal critic within the forces of schism and
division. Stern’s rancor is fueled, AFL-CIO staffers claim, by personal
grievances and some narcissism, as well as policy differences with Sweeney.
The decline of unionism has had deleterious consequences for most employed
Americans. Union wages have influenced and set all workers wages for
decades. Economists call this the “threat” effect – nonunion employers
have to pay well to keep unions out. But the stagnation of middle-class
wages, along with the growing spread between the rich and the poor,
is directly connected to unions’ declining numbers during the last
three decades. Unionism has always been a healthy catalyst for social
good in the country. The most optimistic count of union membership these
days puts its share of the American workforce at 14 percent – a decline
of nearly 10 percent since the early ‘80s. But those 14 percent represent
20 percent of workers who have health insurance, 22 percent of those
who have pension coverage, 28 percent of those who vote, and 33 percent
of those who are delegates to Democratic conventions.
Of all the Republicans’ privatization campaigns, its most successful
to date is privatizing the workforce. They might be stumbling on Social
Security, but they’ve done a good job crippling American unions and
workers’ rights, aided and abetted by restrictive labor laws. Some
unions have taken to courting Republicans, hoping to curry favor. But,
for their efforts they get as much support as Reagan showed PATCO, which
had supported him for the presidency. One of George W. Bush’s first
acts as president was to get rid of worker-friendly ergonomic standards.
The national power of American unions might be at a tipping point and
if Stern and company do abandon the federation and split the movement,
Republicans – and some Democrats – might just ignore them all together.
AFL-CIO headquarters is prime real estate and could end up being its
chief asset. But the larger nonunion public shouldn’t feel smug at
the union movement’s decline. With it hobbled there will be no other
force large enough to check the Republican privatizers’ race to the
bottom for all but the top.
Karl Rove, President Bush’s
deputy chief of staff, might have had his stamp-collection moment. Stamp–collecting
caused the downfall of another Bush presidential advisor, John Sununu,
George W.'s father’s chief of staff. In 1991 Sununu had a White House
car and driver take him to a stamp auction in New York. Sununu sent
the car back empty and returned in a corporate jet. The resulting scandal
drove Sununu from office.
My, how times change. Karl Rove, on the other hand, merely smeared a
critic of the Bush administration by telling reporters that Joe Wilson’s
wife had gotten Wilson a junket to Niger looking for Iraq-connected
yellow-cake uranium because of her pull at the CIA.
After Robert Novak published his now infamous 2003 column about Wilson
that identified his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative – though
Novak seemed unaware that Plame worked undercover – President Bush
said he’d fire the leaker of that protected information: “if that
person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of.” A
special prosecutor was appointed. Patrick Fitzgerald, in the manner
of the breed, has spent a lot of money and come up dry, since the law
in question had been fashioned to keep renegade spooks from exposing
their fellow spies -- as one, Philip Agee, had -- and it didn’t seem
to apply to the case at hand. So, Fitzgerald, in order to justify his
pay, has gone after the messengers of the leak, journalists, hoping
to pin something on someone.
Rove’s bit of info did blow Plame’s cover, though Rove appeared
to want to show that Wilson wasn’t a manly man like Karl Rove and
the President, but needed a woman to get him a job. Rove’s loose lips
might sink his ship, but that remains to be seen. He’s done a lot
worse -- it’s hard to find a more compromised career than that of
political consultant and campaign manager: Wherever they go dirty tricks
follow. But Rove’s comments about the Wilson household snowballed
and have resulted in the jailing of a prominent reporter, Judith Miller
of the N. Y. Times, for refusing to name her sources on the subject
and has sent the journalistic profession into throes of self-examination.
Karl Rove has a long history of making silk purses out of sows’ ears
and even his CIA leak has resulted in some happy consequences for the
White House: conservatives are attacking the press and journalists are
attacking each other.
Like any number of the many smear campaigns of the Bush administration
– smearing administration critics, smearing Social Security, smearing
Treasury bonds – smearing the press has paid off. Too many Washington
journalists are indebted to White House sources for most of their stories
to be anything but meek and thankful. Bob Woodward, who has already
published two profitable books on the Bush administration, was particularly
doleful on CNN last week, saying it is now unlikely that Karl Rove will
get on the phone and tell a reporter anything worth hearing – and,
it is clear, Rove has told Woodward quite a lot.
Rove’s lawyer and Rove’s supporters have been contending that no
actual crime has been committed, given the peculiarities of the applicable
statute. And why should journalists be able to protect their sources,
anyway? What a thought. Even journalists can’t agree on that. The
editor-in-chief of Time, Norman Pearlstine, a lawyer and cog in the
corporate wheel of Time Warner, handed over Matt Cooper’s notes, one
of the threatened-with-jail reporters, which identified Rove as one
source of the Plame leak, saying that Time wasn’t above the law. Well,
that may be, except that the press might occasionally have a stake in
policing what the “law” is up to. When organs of journalism like
Time are just one small part of a corporate flow chart, the practice
of journalism not only suffers, it is likely to disappear.
Judith Miller requires some rehabilitation in many journalistic and
opinion circles for her sycophantic reporting of the Bush administration’s
claims concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Her time in
jail should give her more than enough absolution for those transgressions.
Karl Rove isn’t likely to be fired by the president, unless Rove himself
thinks it is politically beneficial for him to leave and he instructs
the president to fire him. But, all in all, it’s another great day
for the White House: the public disdain for, and distrust of, journalists
grows larger. What could be better?
Many progressive Democrats
have been crying, Chicken Little-fashion, “The sky is falling!”
for the last four presidential elections. Since Bill Clinton ran in
1992, those in the party who thought the governor from Arkansas a bit
too centrist and tainted (“the women problem”) were persuaded to
get behind his candidacy in order to protect the Supreme Court vacancies
that were certain to come. Ditto for Clinton’s second run in ‘96,
Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004.
Well, now the sky IS falling. President Bush has nominated his first
pick for the court, John Roberts, a fresh D.C. circuit court judge confirmed
only two years ago. And Bush is certain to have at least two seats to
fill; with his luck, he may get three or four. Roberts more resembles
Chief Justice William Rehnquist than Sandra Day O’Connor, whose vacancy
Roberts will fill. He is a perfect Republican success-story: The son
of a Bethlehem Steel executive, Harvard BA and Law School graduate,
with service in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, a deputy to Ken
Starr, back when Clinton’s eventual nemesis was George H. W. Bush's
Solicitor General. And, during that service, Roberts stamped his ticket
for social conservatives by arguing Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided
and should be overturned. And, for the last two years, Judge Roberts’
decisions on the appeals bench have been just the sort his boss, the
Bush has once again gone to his father’s bench for his first Supreme
Court bench appointment: Roberts was nominated for the federal appeals
court by Bush’s father in 1992, but his appointment died with the
election of Bill Clinton. President Bush has covered all his bets with
the Roberts nomination: Fancy credentials, plus right-wing approval,
and, significantly, long-service to come: The nominee is only 50.
Just as Strom Thurmond remained Senator till the end beckoned, having
discovered that the Senate was the best old folks home in the country,
Chief Justice Rehnquist is determined to serve till he can’t, just
as his recent statement said. Why give up his guards, his clerks, his
power, his status, for a chair in a darkened room, alone with his thoughts
till his cancer completes its terrible work?
Sandra Day O’Connor always was the likely first retiree: During the
2000 presidential campaign a story circulated of Justice O’Connor
looking stricken and leaving a dinner table when it appeared that Al
Gore had won Florida and hence the election. She was stuck on the Court
for another eight years, it appeared.
It was clear she only wanted to serve another four years and needed
a Republican president to be in office in order to make a graceful exit.
She has a life to return to, since she is in apparent good health and
has the capacity to enjoy retirement.
Rehnquist may or may not make it into and through another Court term,
but Bush, in effect, has replaced Rehnquist this time; next will come
O’Connor’s actual replacement and Bush is likely then to be a bit
more daring with his choice – either his friend the Attorney General,
Alberto Gonzales, or someone that the right wing will really cheer.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rumored to want off the Court. She may throw
up her hands and leave since the Court is now securely in Bush’s hands:
All the 5-4 decisions that Democrats could live with will become 5-4
decisions they can’t live with. And Justice Scalia has been chafing
at his restricted economic livelihood on the bench, eyeing all the dough
that awaits him once he leaves. It isn’t enough just to let the wealthy
take you on duck hunting trips; one wants to afford that sort of luxury
oneself. If Bush doesn’t promise Scalia the Chief Justice post when
it comes open, Scalia may go, to be replaced by someone as narrow minded.
President Bush has demonstrated any number of times that he is not his
father. And he has done that once again with the Roberts appointment;
his father had set the bar rather low with his Clarence Thomas pick
-- George H. W. Bush called Thomas the “best qualified” candidate
in the land. But the time has arrived that Democrats have been fearing
for so long: The sky is falling and George W. Bush gets to pick up the
pieces, one by one.
As Congress heads for its summer
recess, there’s a lot of unfinished business left behind – and that’s
the way the White House likes it. The feisty John Bolton, reports contend,
will be getting a recess appointment as Ambassador to the U.N. President
Bush put a couple of federal judges threatened with filibusters on the
bench as recess appointments. Once seated, the hope is that later confirmation
will follow; or, in one case, Judge Charles Pickering, the appointment
was meant to be a capstone reward for a long career in the service of
Republican values. Bolton hopes to earn eventual confirmation with on-the-job
experience: As long as he doesn’t pound on his desk with a shoe, his
new-found diplomatic skills will be lauded.
Karl Rove and the saga of Valerie Plame CIA leak remains unfinished.
One reason it is staying in the news is the special prosecutor’s foot
dragging: Peter Fitzgerald’s ongoing duties as a U.S. Attorney ferreting
out corruption in the Daley administration has evidently cut into his
time unmasking the evil doers in the Plame case. But it also remains
in the news because Plame is a blonde white woman, which remains the
hook for cable news’ long-running stories of damsels in distress.
And what ever happened to the House Ethics Committee and the unfinished
business of Tom DeLay? The lobbyist Jack Abramoff who favored DeLay
with so many favors is still twisting slowly in the investigative wind,
but DeLay goes about his business unobserved. Who is paying for his
Perhaps some Indian casinos, one source of lobbyist Abramoff’s stores
of cash. The August New Mexico magazine showcases the architectural
wonders of its state’s Indian casinos: They now include amphitheaters
hosting famous entertainers and golf courses for those who want a bit
of exercise to accompany their gambling, facilities tailor-made for
The possible purchase of the U.S. oil company Unocal by a Chinese firm
has been left hanging. Protests surrounding this deal smack of a new
sort of economic Yellow Peril, fears that the wily Chinese are up to
no good, even though China currently stocks the shelves of every Wal-Mart
throughout the land and continues to eagerly buy our T-bills, keeping
our interest rates low. China’s dollars don’t seem to be as good
as other countries’ dollars, though, given that the two top men running
our government are both up to their noses in the oil business, the Chinese
might just want to get into a business the president and vice president
really care about. And China’s problems with Congress may be that
they haven’t greased the palms yet of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff.
Iraq, of course, is still unfinished business, but that is likely a
permanent state. The recent Pentagon “Stability and Security” report,
as gloomy as any assessment penned by Valerie Plame’s husband, Joe
Wilson, will make for sober reading for the vacationing members of Congress.
Criticizing the Iraq police forces, the report calls for quality over
quantity, but even then it sees no light at the end of the tunnel. Ahmed
Chalabi, the White House’s favorite agent of unfinished business,
though, remains Iraq’s acting oil minister.
Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court is unfinished
business that the president wants to take the place of all the other
bits of unfinished business. Homer claimed “the last song is always
applauded the loudest” and Bush would like nothing more than to have
August be filled with news of Roberts’ past and future: Was he, or
was he not, a member of the Federalist Society? What did he mean in
that justice department memo of 1982?
Imagine a month filled with Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, John Bolton, the cash-stuffed
Chinese, an always bloody Iraq: Fighting over the John Roberts nomination,
given all those stories, seems positively restful.
Rather than just print a correction
for writing (actually, typing) “Peter” (the former Senator), for
“Patrick” (the current U.S. attorney and Plame case special prosecutor)
Fitzgerald, in last Sunday’s column, a discussion of mistakes –
and the emails I get pointing to imagined errors in past columns –
is in order.
This is not the sort of column I usually write: When a columnist writes
about errors and emails, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that
he or she hasn’t much to write about that week. That has never been
my problem – there’s always too much to write about.
Often, mistakes that are alleged are matters of opinion, not fact. My
Peter/Patrick mistake is a variation of a typo: it is an obvious error
and most readers substitute the right word for the mangled one. Mistakes
that matter are when columnists claim things that aren’t true. The
syndicated liberal columnist Molly Ivins ran into that problem in June
when she claimed more Iraqi civilians had been killed in the Iraq war
than had been killed by Saddam over his 24 year rule. She corrected
that error in a subsequent “Crow Eaten Here” column.
Such mistakes are often the spawn of hyperbole. My June 26th column
defending Senator Dick Durbin’s remarks about prisoner mistreatment
at Guantanamo elicited a lot of emails, most claiming that Durbin did
slander the military and had compared our soldiers to the Nazis. But
Durbin had been trying to make a specific point: that a description
from a memo could be mistaken for actions of Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin.
Yet Durbin, like many politicians, had foolhardily walked the plank
of hyperbole – to disastrous effect.
A subtler form of hyperbole, though, is a columnist’s stock in trade.
And occasionally it can trip up the most experienced writer – it doubtless
played a role in the Molly Ivins’ case: One wants to make a point
that sticks and the startling claim beckons.
Most of my emailers read the column on the web; the internet has made
journalism interactive. A far smaller number of responses come to me
through the U.S. mail: a piece of paper, a pen, an envelope and a stamp
are impediments to impulse. But reading a column on a screen and typing
an immediate response thereon presents almost no barriers.
Though I have fallen behind in replying to emails, I do read them all.
They act as a very public “public editor,” offering critiques and
refinements. Most serious writers eventually realize how valuable an
unfriendly reader is – such a person can be the whetstone that makes
your prose and thoughts sharper.
Among the many attacks and insults that fill my inbox, a small percentage
will take me to task over actual issues. And some critics won’t let
up. A 5/30/04 column I wrote on the American dead in Iraq provoked one
such. I had written that the soldiers who were dying in Iraq looked
more like the general population than they had during the Vietnam war.
My proof was the rising average age of the dead. During Vietnam it was
around 19. In Iraq, because of the National Guard and the reserves,
older soldiers are being killed. The average age is in the 20s. They
are most often men with families, job histories, unlike the callow youths
of Vietnam. But my emailer objected to the idea that a cross section
of Americans was dying: rich and poor, not something I had claimed.
But he was convinced that I thought the children of privilege were dying
in Iraq, rather than the actual victims, men and women from ordinary
Newspaper columns are fixed things, artifacts, whereas electronic copy
is always fluid until it is printed. That is why obvious mistakes sting,
since a lot of attention has been paid to the whole, as well as its
parts. But it is when you do make a mistake – or claim too much –
you know people are really paying attention.
The high gas prices haven’t
caused much consumer outcry – complaints, yes, but nothing like anger
rising to organized protest. President Bush’s poll numbers might be
tanking, but SUV owners are still filling their tanks. Oil prices have
hit all-time highs, $65 a barrel and rising, and all Vice President
Cheney can do is smile at the new, but very familiar, Saudi King Abdullah,
offering the usual fulsome Bush administration obeisance, on the occasion
of the former king’s official death.
The Bush White House would doubtless claim mere coincidence at the ongoing
boom-time for the oil industry: most everyone connected to Big Oil is
raking in the dough. President Bush signed the oil rich energy bill
at the Sandia National Laboratories, flanked again by smiling white
guys. “Political correctness be damned!” is the motto of the Bush
administration: We help our friends and deal with our enemies. Let the
good times roll! It’s sweet in the business of sweet crude.
The public grins and bears it. One reason consumers haven’t risen
up and stormed oil companies’ headquarters is that they, at least,
realize they must sacrifice something for our Iraq adventure, even if
the crowd at Sandia won’t sacrifice anything. Stomaching the high
prices translates into showing support for the troops fighting for the
oil fields of Iraq.
One more indirect reason of the lack of organized protest comes from
decades of progressive hectoring, the admonitions that gasoline has
been too cheap. Conservationists have long claimed prices would have
to approach $4 a gallon before consumption would fall, limiting our
dependence on foreign oil. One thing that could be done is to implement
price controls: if prices drop below, say $3.50, the price could stay
the same and the difference could become a tax – as it actually is
for the consumer, though it’s called profits by the Bush/Cheney oil
cartel. That tax, since it is regressive, could go to the predicted
Social Security shortfall, or to lower Medicare costs, or some other
But the Bush administration only raises taxes by cutting benefits. Those
who lose the benefit are paying the “tax” and they are children,
workers, veterans and the elderly, not the men who stand around Bush
smiling at bill-signing ceremonies.
The Iraq war has tested the administration’s competence and the result
hasn’t been pretty. Even the Republican-controlled Congress is getting
restive and reports generated by the military have become increasingly
critical. But, as long as the Chalabi family controls Iraq’s oil interests,
the Bush war may well be going to plan, which, so it appears, is to
achieve a democracy brutal enough to control the country and to remain
in Iraq configured in a defensive posture that lets us have permanent
influence over its oil industry.
President Bush’s “working” vacation isn’t a problem, since his
time at the White House often resembles a working vacation: he exercises
for hours six times a week – and he isn’t disturbed when he does,
such as the time a plane strayed into the White House’s airspace and
people, including his wife, ran for cover.
August does get him out of Washington. Bush is gathering with his advisers
to discuss his economic plans for the rest of his term. Let us hope
the confab doesn’t have the same outcome as the talks during the summer
of ‘01, when they mulled over the now famous memo, “Bin Laden Determined
to Attack Inside the United States.” But money is serious and who
gets what won’t slip by this time, ignored.
The strategy behind the president’s
scheme to privatize Social Security and the attempts to introduce the
subject of “intelligent design” into America’s classrooms are
similar enough to be fashioned by the same intelligent designers.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), in a number of forums, has made clear that
intelligent design should not be taught in schools, but that the “controversy”
between it and the theory of evolution, natural selection, should be.
The result, of course, would be tantamount to the same thing. And, recently,
at a Retirement Research Consortium conference in Washington, D. C.,
the deputy commissioner of Social Security, James Lockhart, boasted
that, however badly the president’s sales job of trashing Social Security
has been, “the people are getting the message” that Social Security
has a serious “problem.”
That is the victory that proponents of “intelligent design” want
to claim: The science of evolution has a serious “problem” and that
the solution is “intelligent design” – just as the president presents
his privatization plan as the solution to Social Security’s “problem.”
The public is seeing through both ruses: It is a shell game of thought
and the “intelligent design” folks are being caught out more quickly
than even Bush’s Social Security overhaul has been exposed. Neither
Bush nor the ID team wants to correct a problem, they want to replace
what exists. In the case of Social Security, they want privatize accounts
to eventually take over and for Social Security to be scrapped. And
Bruce Chapman, one of leaders of the intelligent design movement, has
been quoted saying, “The foremost thing is to demolish the Darwinist
superstition” – out with Darwin, in with God.
Just as it is dangerous to fool with Mother Nature, it is hazardous
to rile up most of the country’s scientific community: Science is
more difficult to attack than one of FDR’s most successful New Deal
programs. Intelligent design is a rebranded form of creationism and
the changeover began in 1996, when the Christian Leadership Ministries
underwrote a conference at Biola University near Los Angeles. The name
change was as effective as the conservative christening of the estate
tax the “death” tax.
Supporters of intelligent design are often wistful: All they want to
do is insert a Supreme Being into their lives, all our lives, at some
point in the creation of the universe, even if the point is eons ago.
That such a creator, as often depicted, can appear to resemble Sen.
Santorum is touching and always has been.
But, even intelligent designers
are intelligent enough to know that it would be hard to teach metaphysics
in a science classroom, but like those who want the Ten Commandments
displayed in public buildings, they just want the idea introduced and
paid the polite homage of organized discussion.
Neither the intelligent design campaign, nor Bush’s push to privatize
Social Security, is over and done; both camps are attempting to win
the day, persistently, and each can be satisfied with incremental victories.
If, in, say, 2007, Bush gets a Social Security “reform” bill with
a privatizing component, however small, he will claim it a great victory
– as it would be. Now intelligent design is being discussed outside
the classroom – and that’s not far from such talk being moved inside.
Cindy Sheehan and the handful
of other Gold Star mothers and random anti-war groups gathering near
President Bush’s ranch outside of Crawford are the Iraq-conflict version
of the Vietnam-era veterans who turned against the war. There were more
Viet vets – many more Americans died in Vietnam – but their haunting
emergence toward the end of that conflict signaled the war was losing
public support: They had achieved the moral authority many ascribe to
She and her eclectic crew – and the anti-Sheehan protesters she has
inspired trailing into the area – bring up other disturbing images
from the past, particularly the notorious Branch Davidian compound,
not far as the crow flies from Bush’s homestead, which itself was
under siege by law enforcement and the media, but for different reasons.
“Prairie Chapel Ranch” – which Bush named when he bought the former
pig farm in 1999 – is nothing like the equally piously named Davidian
spread, Mount Carmel, burnt to the ground in 1993, killing nearly 80
Regardless, after Bush returns to Washington, look for his ranch to
gain more acreage and for the roads leading to it becoming private lanes.
That his summer White House has been spared coverage of protesters for
four years is itself remarkable. It took one unhappy mother to change
Sheehan came along at the right time, just as public support of Bush’s
war has begun to wane. Her status as a sorrowful mother legitimized
her protest, but her prominence came on the heels of the surprising
near success of a Democratic challenger, Paul Hackett, an Iraq-veteran
Marine officer, to a safe Republican congressional seat in Ohio. He
and Sheehan galvanized and profited from the same discontent.
The volunteer army votes with its boots and weak recruitment numbers
also reflect the unease with the president’s war. An amazing fact
of the Vietnam war was that the public accepted it for so long: It took
nearly a decade for the protest to become effective and the Vietnam
vets were the last straw and helped collapse the remaining public support
of that war. Cindy Sheehan is more likely the first straw, marking the
beginnings of a forceful anti-Iraq war movement.
Karl Rove’s lauded PR sense may have taken a vacation when he advised
against the president meeting again with Sheehan after she first arrived
on Prairie Chapel road. But Rove may well be guessing that her protest
could be discredited – and Bush’s rebuff be taken as resoluteness,
rather than callousness. Rove is again playing to the Republican base
and is letting the administration’s friendly press and talk radio
corps handle the Sheehan smearing.
Sheehan did fulfill Rove’s hopes by ratcheting up her anti-Bush rhetoric
and the right-wing chorus, after initial hesitation, is in full-throated
denunciation mode, including sending pro-war bodies to contest the Camp
Casey brigade. The scene resembles the 2000 Florida recount now, when
GOP operatives flooded the state and raised a bigger ruckus than the
The one grieving mother who has become a cable star, though, is the
mom of Natalee Holloway, as she stands most every night in Aruba, protesting
the Dutch court system’s methods. Unlike Cindy Sheehan, Natalee’s
mom is beloved by Fox News and other cable tragedy connoisseurs. On
one hand, we have the good mother trying to solve the mystery of her
lovely blonde child’s disappearance and, on the other, the grief-besotted
“radical kook” who knows all too well how her boy was killed, but
still wants an answer from the president as to why and for what.
President Bush is proud of
the constitution that the Iraqis have come up with – or, rather, in
hedging language he praised the Iraqis for completing “the process
for drafting a permanent constitution.” That, however much the document
is in flux, is an “inspiration to all.” Bush continued, “I want
our folks to remember our constitution was not unanimously received,”
thereby joining an improbable chorus of Republicans who have spent the
last couple of weeks repeating the more unpleasant truths of American
history, in order to defend the result of the Iraqis’ work.
It has been distinctly odd to hear so many right-wingers, usually the
staunch, see-no-evil boosters of America, recite our history of slavery,
of women being denied the vote for most of our existence, examples from
our own bloody Civil War and the long fight for civil rights, all to
excuse what is contained in the Iraqi constitution. All in all, they
sound like those depressing nay-saying liberal Democrats.
There is the old saw, ascribed to Chairman Mao, that political power
grows out of the barrel of a gun, but in Iraq the Bush administration
has been trying to grow an Iraqi democracy out of our military’s many
gun barrels. The White House has put the Iraqis on a forced-march timetable
dictated by our domestic politics: elections in January, constitution
in August, a referendum in October, yet another election in December.
The Sunnis have once again opted out, thinking the fix is in: The current
draft constitution favors the Shiites and the Kurds, both equipped with
the most effective tribal armies. The Sunnis, the heart of the deposed
and banned Baath party, are fingered as the chief element of the insurgency.
They hope to sow further discontent with the infidel American occupiers
and their U.S.-election-sensitive timetable.
It wasn’t rocket science to predict what sort of country Iraqis might
form without Saddam Hussein telling them what to do. The splitting of
Yugoslavia was a handy model, after its strongman, Tito, died and the
USSR dissolved. In Iraq, the Kurds would seek autonomy in the North;
in the South, the Shiites would turn to their mullahs and the Sunnis
in Baghdad would balk at their new minority status, enraged at being
hated for all their years in power during Saddam’s reign.
But now it is the Sunni members of the constitution drafting team complaining
that women’s rights aren’t protected in the new constitution and
that Islamic law is not to be contradicted as the law of the land. Even
our ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, hopes the constitution is a draft,
open to “edits.” But the White House wants progress and for the
Iraqis to stick to the schedule, whatever the result. Toward the end
of the Vietnam war the glib remark often repeated was that we should
just claim victory and leave – but President Bush has adopted that
tactic from the beginning of the Iraq war: Mission Accomplished. Every
step is a victory, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
But, as Republicans have been so solicitously reminding us the past
few weeks, a lot of American history is bloody and cruel, so what can
you expect, as the president explains, from a country that has had so
little experience with the niceties of governing our forebears had while
it makes its “transition from dictatorship to democracy”? We should
cut them some slack – say about 200 years.
First, President Bush had to
put up with Hurricane Cindy and then came Hurricane Katrina, which supplied
the death stroke to his avoidance strategy. Katrina dumped Cindy Sheehan
from the front pages and her summer storm of anti-war protesting paled
in comparison, but Bush is a creature of habit and he couldn’t, immediately,
halt his hands-off policies, claiming, in Sheehan’s case, he had to
live a “normal” life and in the case of Hurricane Katrina, his excuse
was the no-one-would-have-ever-thought defense his administration reaches
for so often.
Condoleezza Rice, when she was national security adviser, had uttered
that classic line in regard to planes being used as weapons after 9/11.
It took less time for Bush’s excuse to be debunked than Rice’s,
since notice of all the prior warnings of New Orleans's vulnerability
had been in the news for days before the president uttered his remark.
What actually had been thought was that no group of 19 Middle Eastern
guys could pull off such a stunt and that no hurricane of such force
would hit New Orleans and bust the levees: The unlikely was judged not
to be possible.
When your life has been based on trashing “Big Government” – and
your chief domestic initiative has been an attempt to dismantle the
largest and most effective federal program, Social Security – the
last thing you want to do is to send in the Marines the moment an “ultracatastrophe”
occurs. Anyway, everyone was on vacation: Katrina debunks the notion
that Bush’s ranch is so well wired he can do all his work in Crawford.
Being in Washington would have at least reminded the president he was
supposed to be on the job.
Secretary of State Rice had to be shooed from a shopping spree at a
fancy shoe store in New York City and summoned back to work. Labor Day
was largely ignored last week because of Katrina, though the disaster
provided a dramatic public display of the state of workers in the U.S.
today. The poverty rate has been rising and the country got to see what
those statistics mean. In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote a book called
The Other America, revealing how hidden so much of our poverty was --
and, with Katrina’s example, still is.
But here they were: All the people who exist paycheck to paycheck, all
the indigent folks President Bush wants to live with cut-backs in social
programs. New Orleans was able to handle a lot of poor people, as well
as others who lived on the margins, because of its history of tolerance
and its climate.
But, the climate turned against them. The evacuees resemble nothing
so much as the Mariel boat people from Cuba during the Carter years.
The homeless of New Orleans are boat people, but the boats came to them.
They have been dispersed across the country to fit in wherever they
Katrina should alter the way Bush does business, but he is a man of
his own convictions. Now that Halliburton has been cut in on the future
rebuilding in the region, the administration may see a bright side,
channeling the big contracts to come to its friends. But Bush’s domestic
agenda may have taken a hit. This will test the Republican-controlled
Congress: The “death” tax gone? More tax cuts for the richest few,
those who got out of New Orleans first? Social Security privatized?
I don’t think so. Social Security workers were among the first to
spring into action after the disaster, attempting to redirect the all-important
checks to wherever their recipients ended up. Katrina has shown there
is no Other America, just the one we have.
Last Sun-Times Column (unpublished)
The sitting Supreme Court justice
Harriet Miers resembles most is Clarence Thomas. The first similarity
is their manner of selection: In both cases, affirmative action was
a consideration, given the justices they were replacing. Thurgood Marshall
equaled Clarence Thomas. Harriet Miers equals Sandra Day O’Connor.
There the affirmative action similarities end with Marshall and O’Connor,
that is. Both Thomas and Miers, of course, were nominated by Bushes,
George H. W. and George W. And both father and son offered eerily similar
testimonials for the nominees: they were either the “most qualified”
(Thomas) or the “best person” (Miers) each could find.
Miers and Thomas, though, are
chiefly creatures of patronage, more than affirmative action. In Miers’
case, the patron is the president himself. In Thomas’s it was John
Danforth, the former Senator and more recently John Bolton’s predecessor
at the UN, whom Thomas worked for in Missouri before Danforth’s rise
in national politics. After Danforth went to Washington, Thomas moved
over briefly to agra-giant Monsanto, the Missouri firm that needed scrutiny
from the state attorney general’s office (where Thomas had worked
under Danforth.) It was a familiar case of former watchdog joining the
Danforth, though, quickly brought
his protege Thomas to Washington as an aide and after bouncing around
federal patronage jobs Thomas was elevated to an appeals court and then
to the Supreme Court. No one thought, beyond the elder Bush, Thomas
was the most qualified candidate in the land and, as in the case of
Harriet Miers’ nomination, a lot of ink was spilled over Thomas’s
suitability to serve on the high court.
But Thomas was the most qualified
black Republican handy to replace Thurgood Marshall. The pool of conservative
women and blacks is not very deep; one can go far in those circles,
as a number of folk who have decided to hop over to that side of the
street have discovered. That 2 percent of blacks currently approve of
President Bush reveals why Republicans have so few blacks to choose
Thomas has not disappointed
conservative Republicans, though Sandra Day O’Connor has: This is
why Bush had to appoint a trusted woman, one personally vetted by the
president himself. Who knows if the other women available were truly
President Bush knows Miers’
heart, knows she will never change the evidence of her own personal
experience to the contrary. The surprise is so many right wingers have
balked at taking his word for it.
Karl Rove’s current Patrick
Fitzgerald/Valerie Plame problems have been blamed for the White House
being blind-sided by the conservative revolt, though Rove’s call two
days before the Miers announcement to Rev. James Dobson of Focus on
the Family belies that line of reasoning. The White House knew there
might be trouble.
But perhaps it is trouble Bush
wanted all along. And who better to suffer the slings and arrows of
outraged conservatives than the president’s lawyer herself?
If Miers finally withdraws
the original scheme will become crystal clear. Bush and company can
say righteously they tried the woman route and look what it got them.
And another white male can safely be nominated, to easily confirmation,
one of the men whose original nomination might have caused controversy,
such as the darlings of the elite right wing, 10th circuit federal appeals
judge Michael McConnell or the 4th circuit’s Michael Luttig.
It took years on the court
before Clarence Thomas uttered a word from the bench during oral arguments;
even now he is still largely mute. Miers will likely be similarly quiet
-- and reliable -- if she is confirmed.
Perhaps President Bush does
know Miers’ heart. But he is not just sending a message to the conservatives
of his own party, to the nation in general, but to the remaining liberal
justices on the court.
If Bush had sent another star
like John Roberts to them, it would have shown them all too much respect.
As it is, Bush puts them in their place, saying, See, I’ll put just
about anybody on the court. Why stay? President Bush may yet get two
more vacancies to fill. Once the court swings 5-4 in favor of draconian
intelligent design, a couple of liberal justices eyeing retirement may
well decide to call it a day. Then the court can get stacked with further
examples of Bush’s often announced model ideal justices: More Thomases
and an occasional Scalia.