Tuesday, October 9, 2007

'The Kingdom' Of American Wish Fulfillment

Movies have long been the place where audiences see their dreams realized. People fall in love, win fortunes, find the perfect job and otherwise triumph over adversity. We know it's not always like that in the real world. But every once in a while, a movie comes along with a fantasy that just isn't healthy, and director Peter Berg's The Kingdom is such a film.

In The Kingdom, a terrorist attack occurs in Saudi Arabia, in a compound where the families of American employees of multi-national corporations live. U.S. intelligence agents make demands, twist arms and otherwise coerce their way into getting permission to enter Saudi Arabia - the kingdom of the film's title - so that they can investigate the crime that took the lives of their friends who were present at the time, despite the very clear instructions from the U.S. attorney general that they stay out of it. Apparently, the rule of law means little to Americans when revenge is at hand.

Once in Saudi Arabia, the agents are flustered and aggravated at having to comply with the rules and the customs of the Saudis. Jennifer Garner's character shows a combination of ignorance and disrespect when she meets a Saudi prince in a revealing tank top. The message to the audience is: These aren't messengers of diplomacy; to hell with Saudi customs, they have a job to do! Jamie Foxx's character is the leader and he is constantly playing the smart cop in another jurisdiction routine: "Just let me do my job because I know better than you! And I can solve this if you stop tying my hands!"

Just as Rambo once re-fought and won the Vietnam War, the Americans in The Kingdom are there to kick some terrorist ass and reassure American audiences that we could win the war on terror if only other countries' rules and laws weren't tying the hands of American tough guys (and gals).

A harrowing (and effectively suspenseful) climax has Jason Bateman's character kidnapped by terrorists, who bind and gag him, and set his execution up to be filmed, just as other torturous, real-life films of beheadings have made their way out of similar conflicts. Here is the film's inherent dishonesty: Just as the character is to be beheaded, the American agents burst into the room, killing all the terrorists and saving their friend. Using a situation that is beyond comprehension, the film suggests that American muscle can triumph over that which no one has yet been able to stop.

Early in the film, when word comes that one of their friends has been killed in the attack, Garner's character weeps. Foxx's character whispers to her, and she stops, but we aren't told until the very end what he said to her: "We're going to kill them all." That's the same sentiment that a dying terrorist leader whispers to his granddaughter near the film's end. You might think that the movie is showing how both sides are ignorant and that would be true, had we not just spent two hours seeing these U.S. agents who want to "kill them all" glorified as action heroes and problem solvers.

Newspaper ads for the film use a quote that proclaims it "the best movie of the year so far by far," according to a Fox News critic. Not surprising that the right-wing channel that has done it's best to legitimize American action in the Middle East and support a war that was a bad idea before it started would further encourage the public to see something positive in a movie that presents Americans only as do-gooders who are frustrated and hamstrung by other cultures. The movie is considered offensive enough that it has been banned in Bahrain and Kuwait, according to Daily Variety.

Anytime a movie presents itself as being topical, it owes a responsibility to the audience to present situations that bear some relation to reality. This film doesn't. Many Saudis - not just fundamentalists - resent the American presence in their country, and while the people that are victims of the attacks in the movie certainly don't deserve what happens to them, the real situation is more complex. American companies have been exploiting Saudi resources for decades, and an understanding of this would have provided a more complete picture for the film. Instead, it presents a simplistic portrait of a conflict that most audiences don't understand (especially since their ignorance is encouraged by the right-wing media), with characters descended from Rambo and other neanderthal tough guys.

The Kingdom is the most irresponsible movie in many years.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Edwards: Most Electable?

While most people read about the squabbles between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, the slipping fortunes of the McCain campaign, and the foot-in-the-mouth blunders from both the Giuliani and Romney camps, one story is being ignored: In several polls from various sources, John Edwards beats each of the Republican contenders by larger margins in most cases than his Democratic challengers.

In polls taken in June and July by Zogby, Rasmussen and Newsweek , Edwards beats Fred Thompson by an average of 11%, beats Mitt Romney by an average of 12.4%, beats John McCain by an average of 7.3%, and beats Rudolph Giuliani by an average of 2% (which is still greater than Hillary's match-up with Giuliani which puts her ahead by 1%). Only Barack Obama comes out with a higher average margin of victory against Giuliani (3.2%), Thompson (13%) and Romney (13%). There is a summary of the polls on RealClearPolitics.

However, in the most recent Rasmussen report, Edwards has a 7-point lead over Giuliani, up from a 4-point lead in early June. Also, Rasmussen says that Republican voters are less opposed to Edwards than to Clinton or Obama. Giuliani and Thompson only get 68% of the Republican vote when pitted against Edwards.

Giuliani said recently that he was a "first responder" on 9/11 and that he was at Ground Zero "as much or more than" the workers who were digging through the rubble. Rudy will continue to draw as many connections as he can between himself and the events of that day. But many fire departments have complained that it was the Giuliani administration that short-changed them and made them lack necessary equipment that could have saved lives. Giuliani's comments - not to mention his lack of humility - show an insensitivity.

And Mitt Romney, when asked why none of his five sons were serving in the military, said that his sons were serving their country by trying to get him elected because "they think I will be a great president." No doubt there are thousands of Americans serving in Iraq who would rather work on a destined-to-fail political campaign instead of fighting in a war. Romney certainly can challenge Giuliani in the lack of sensitivity department.

Meanwhile, the Edwards campaign has been addressing matters of substance and talking specifics while the Republicans are beating their chests and making ill-considered quips. Edwards' health care plan remains the most thorough of those presented by any candidate (only Obama also has a substantive plan on the table). As pointed out earlier, Edwards has been setting the agenda for the Democratic contest by addressing issues and concerns that the other candidates must comment on.

Although not widely reported, Edwards won a California straw poll held in Los Angeles over the weekend by the California Democratic Council. The CDC is made up of Democratic clubs and organizations throughout the state. Edwards got 41% of the vote, while 20% were undecided. Obama placed next with 14%. Clinton received 8% of the vote.

More info: The Real Liberal

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why the Summer of Love Remains Relevant

It has become commonplace to laugh about the Summer of Love. Conservatives, particularly, like to make fun of the excesses of that period, and some, like Ronald Reagan, built political careers by campaigning against the tenets of the counter-culture that built a movement around the notion of love.

The fact of the matter is that 1967 was anything but a peaceful, carefree period in history. The Vietnam War was heating up, with U.S. casualties mounting up to more than 11,000 that year alone, which was more than in the previous ten years combined. Race relations were deteriorating, despite (or perhaps as a consequence of) the progress of the civil rights movement, and destructive riots occurred in cities throughout the country. Anti-war forces got bigger and bolder, holding marches of previously unseen numbers, and the country found itself in a political divide unlike anything that preceded it.

Among this chaos and upheaval, people who believed in peace and understanding found a way to flourish. To some whose adherence to traditional political dogma was ingrained, it seemed a selfish, indulgent exercise, and a silly one at that. What were the hippies really accomplishing, other than "dropping out" of society, as Timothy Leary suggested? But to those with a more intellectual and open mind, the Summer of Love was an exercise in defiance, an entire way of thinking that evolved from the peaceful disobedience of the civil rights movement, and a way of being that wasn't dictated by government or corporate influence. After all, if all you need is love, how can Madison Avenue sell you things you don't really need? If you were to "get together and smile on your brother" (as the Youngbloods' song suggested), how can the government convince you to join the military and kill those they deem your enemies?

As historian Sean Wilentz points out in a recent article, the cultural divide that came to the fore in 1967 is still separating Americans today, and hasn't ever gone away. Reagan and his eventual running mate George H.W. Bush supported Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, and carried on the conservative cause in the decades that followed. Current president George W. Bush has been most damning to the peaceful side of the cultural divide. The country has another war with no end in sight, and another president who places himself and his administration above the law. Forty years ago, the U.S. had a Supreme Court that protected the rights of the powerless and strengthened individual liberties. Now, a Court packed with conservatives serves big business and gives government more power and individuals less of a voice.

Even if the Summer of Love couldn't hold sway over politics, it did permanently alter the nature of art, music, film and other creative endeavors. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released June 1, 1967, has been considered a cultural landmark for 40 years, and remains one of the most important works of art ever created. Music and art have always reflected the philosophy of the artists, but this period introduced the widespread acceptance of philosophical ideas in commercial, popular entertainment that could reach a vast audience. It changed the way we communicated, and now, it would be hard to imagine reaching any audience - commercial, political, artistic, even religious - without some sway from popular culture.

The lessons in the Summer of Love are there for all to see. You don't have to endorse drug use or promiscuity to appreciate the idea that human beings can live in a peaceful setting if they work at it instead of working for the purpose of war or material accumulation. It seems a far more radical idea to suggest that working for a peaceful society is not a desirable goal. Yet that's exactly what Vice President Dick Cheney said when he declared that he thought the nature of man was war, not peace. There's been little in the administrations of the last five Republican presidents to suggest that they care at all for peace, and the idea of love or understanding seems lost on them -- unless it's understanding the love of avarice.

This point is well illustrated in Mike Myers' comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, when the title character confronts his nemesis, Dr. Evil:

Dr. Evil:
Isn't it ironic, Mr. Powers, that the very things you stand for -- swinging, free love, parties, distrust of authority- are all now... considered to be... evil? Maybe we have more in common than you care to admit.

No, man, what we swingers were rebelling against were uptight squares like you, whose bag was money and world domination. We were innocent, man. If we'd known the consequences of our sexual liberation, we would have done things differently, but the spirit would have remained the same. It's freedom, man.
Pictures of young people in colorful clothes with flowers in their hair, meditating in a park somewhere, needn't be dismissed as silly anachronisms. Look at them as a portal to a different way of living, and an alternative solution to a culture of greed and war.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

'Six Years of Deceit' On Global Warming

"Six Years of Deceit" is essential reading in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Tim Dickinson lays out how the Bush administration set out to ease environmental regulations, despite rhetoric to the contrary that they were interested in protecting the environment or increasing the nation's response to global warming.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the magazine was able to obtain thousands of pages of internal documents that show the administration led an effort to mislead the public on the issues and create doubts about generally-accepted scientific conclusions. All of which, they believe, justify their inaction in the face of the changes that most credible scientists say are happening and will only get worse - in some cases, exponentially worse.

The article quotes Rick Plitz, who once worked in the Bush administration, who said the real issue was "a political clientele that does not want to be regulated." Meanwhile, the president went out and proclaimed that "We must and we will conserve more in the United States," but yet saw to it that federal efficiency programs had their funding cut by about one-third. All of the administration's proposals involve voluntary participation, leaving it up to industries that have business interests to the contrary to do what is in the best interests of the nation and the world. The president calls this approach "flexible," but it is really just naive.

Like the war in Iraq, this administration's position on global warming and efforts to correct it seem set in stone. They're simply not going to change any of their policies in the next 19 months, and the harmful effects of their inaction will be the responsibility of the next administration, making it all the more essential that a different kind of leader be chosen to succeed George Bush.

["Six Years Of Deceit" can be read online here. The article can also be found in the June 28, 2007, issue of Rolling Stone.]

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Congress Doesn't Learn Vietnam's Lesson, Iraq War Drags On

The war is dragging on. It has now lasted longer that World War II. Yesterday, Congress failed to authorize a plan that would block funding of the Iraq war beyond April 1 of next year, meaning, in all likelihood, that the war will continue past that date. President Bush has said the war will not end on his watch, which means it will continue at least until his successor is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.

Withdrawl of funding for the war is the best chance anyone has to stop the Bush administration and end the war. Congress is authorized to do so under the law, and with public sentiment running so high against the war, it's a wonder they did not.

The bill introduced by Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) would have limited funds after April 1 to training Iraqi forces and for counter-terrorism efforts. A tepid, competing bill from Republicans, which was also defeated, would only have required Bush to present "progress reports" in July and September, with only the possibility that foreign aid could be withheld if certain benchmarks weren't met. A provision added to the Republican bill at the insistence of the White House would have allowed Bush to waive any penalties. In short, it was a bill with no teeth and did not challenge the administration.

To their credit, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted for the Democratic measure, which will no doubt please their Democratic supporters. John Edwards has been calling on Congress to cut off funding for the war for months now. By contrast, all of the Republican presidential candidates have said they will continue the war in one fashion or another (although their tune may change when they reach a general election where they have to appeal to a majority of Americans rather than the rapid right-wing base).

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the need to end the war as soon as possible. He said, "How many more soldiers do we have to bury? How many more do we have to bring into our military and veterans hospitals? How many more thousands of innocent Iraqis have to die before we finally accept our responsibility to bring this war to an end?" In a statement, Edwards stressed the historical need for the war funding to be cut: "In 1971, Congress repealed the resolution authorizing the Vietnam War - and the war continued for four long years until Congress stopped funding it."

When generals and analysts have said there is no military solution to the war in Iraq, what can be gained by continuing the U.S. military presence there? It seems what U.S. politicans who have supported the war feel is most at stake is their careers. There's no other logical explantion for continuing this effort, which seems, like Vietnam, fated to end badly for the U.S.

In the early 1970s, Congress considered 18 proposals to restrict funding for military operations in Southeast Asia, and only five were enacted. Congress never actually cut off funds for U.S. combat operations in Vietnam itself while American troops were there, despite efforts to do just that. Combatting calls for the end of war funding, President Ford said the U.S. couldn't "abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs." Sound familiar? Congress eventually stopped funding, and the war ended.

It's unfortunate that in more than 30 years, Congress hasn't learned anything. The deaths of many more Americans and Iraqis are sure to come in the next few years, while the countdown to the end of the war ticks away. By not ending the funding now, Congress and the Bush administration are causing the misery of thousands. All of which isn't necessary, since the lessons of history show that the end of the war - without what Bush considers "victory" - is inevitable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How Many Deaths Will It Take?

As news of the horrific scene at Virginia Tech unfolded yesterday, some pundits said now was not the time to start talking about gun control, saying that it would be an exploitation of the tragedy for political purposes. President Bush said "now is not the time" for a debate, and he said it should wait until "we're actually certain about what happened." But only someone opposed to gun control would say such a thing. If now is not the time to discuss greater gun control, when is? It's only a political issue because lines have been drawn by the political parties.

Virginia has among the most lenient gun laws in the country. There are no requirements for licensing or training, and if one buys a weapon at gun show, there is no background check or waiting period. If a person completes a background check, Virginia law requires that a concealed carry permit be issued to anyone who applies. (Virginia does not allow guns to be carried on school campuses.)

Contrary to what most people are told, the U.S. Constitution doesn't give everyone the right to own a gun. The Second Amendment conveys the right "to keep and bear arms" for the purposes of maintaining a well-regulated militia. This was written in the days before there were federal armed forces, state police, local police and so forth. In the absence of a need for a militia made up of citizens, there is no right to own a gun.

That realization is anathema to gun owners and members of the National Rifle Association, the premier special interest group in the nation, which has fought all reasonable attempts at gun control. Nothing less than completely un-regulated gun ownership will satisfy the extremists at the NRA, which is among the richest and most powerful of all lobbying groups and which can strike fear in politicians seeking to win elections. During the news broadcasts of the events yesterday, Fox News host John Gibson gave the right-wing party line: If other students or faculty had been armed, they could have defended themselves and others. It seems, to gun advocates, that the answer to violence is more violence. Preventing violence has never occurred to them. Of course, the NRA is also supported by corporations that make and sell weapons, so there is an inherent conflict of interest and a self-serving nature of their position.

Not all politicians cower to the gun lobby: Barack Obama has gone on record before this latest incident, saying the sale or transfer of all forms of semi-automatic weapons should be banned, state restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms should be increased, and manufacturers should be required to provide child-safety locks with firearms. He also supports lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

John Edwards has said in the past he supports closing the gun-show loophole and preventing convicted criminals of owning guns. Edwards has also said, however, that gun ownership is about "independence," and he supports the right to own them. He nevertheless said he supports lawsuits that would hold gun manufacturers accountable. Hillary Clinton has advocated registering and licensing all handgun sales, and has said "there are too many guns and too many children have access." In the Senate, Clinton voted against the bill that would have granted the gun industry immunity from lawsuits.

Rudy Giuliani has said that "just as a motorist must have a license, a gun owner should be required to have one as well. Anyone wanting to own a gun should have to pass a written exam that shows that they know how to use a gun, that they’re intelligent enough and responsible enough to handle a gun." John McCain, who has said in the past that he favors safety locks on guns, voted against gun control legislation in the Senate. McCain voted against the assault weapons ban of 1994 (which President Bush allowed to expire in 2004) and also voted against the Brady Bill, which would have required a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney said in the past he supported the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill, but lately - as he courts Republican voters - he has shied away from being a strong gun-control advocate and instead, his campaign describes him as someone who has worked to ease gun-control laws.

The NRA and people who support unrestricted gun laws foster a culture of violence. Indeed, the notion that everyone should be armed encourages it. There is another way, led by people who believe a more peaceful existence is possible. It starts with legitimate, strong gun control legislation, and with efforts like the one by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to hold gun manufacturers accountable.

But as long as the likes of the Bush Administration is in charge, none of this will come to pass. The Bush Administration, along with the gun lobby and its allies in Congress, suppressed crime gun trace data, exposing the complicity of gun dealers in supplying the illegal gun market in order to aid gun makers in civil court cases and shield the industry from negative public attention.

Despite the fact that polls find gun control has strong support from Americans, there is unlikely to be any changes in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. That's because Democrats - and Bill Clinton - believe the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994 led to the defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 Congressional elections, due to the intense lobbying of the NRA. Al Gore's failure to win states in the south in 2000 is also blamed on the NRA, to some degree, and their mischaracterization of his position. The NRA did the same thing to John Kerry in 2004. It matters little that gun control has broad public support, or that most law-enforcement agencies around the country support it, since the NRA's scare tactics have made the issue toxic for politicians.

As a general rule, however, no politician who takes money from the gun manufacturers or has support of the NRA can be taken seriously on gun control. Eight years after the shootings at Columbine, with all the other shootings since - including last year's incident at an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania - the country's lax gun legislation is the same. Families who have suffered losses from these senseless acts of violence deserve better than to see our national well-being held hostage by the likes of the NRA. Again, if now is not the time to talk about these issues, when? If this generation doesn't start to correct the epidemic of gun violence, who will?

Friday, April 13, 2007

What Took So Long?

Don Imus was fired, and it's about damn time.

As a radio personality, Imus was always more than a little obnoxious, but that was his "voice," and so be it. But for more than 25 years, he exhibited an attitude toward people of other colors and sexes that can only be classified as racist and sexist. Maybe it's the culture that finally became advanced enough in 2007 to say that his behavior isn't acceptable. Why wasn't he fired in the early 1980s when he dedicated the Queen song "Another One Bites The Dust" to the children of Atlanta, during the Atlanta child murders of that period? Thirty black children and young adults were killed in a two-year period, starting in 1979. Why did Imus never apologize to their families? Or to the Atlanta community? Why did the company that broadcast him never say "You went too far; we don't want to be the station that has that kind of misanthropy on the airwaves"?

Thirteen years ago, in 1994, Imus played a song that advised President Clinton on how to handle the Paula Jones situation: "Pimp slap the ho." Imus' sidekick and executive producer Bernard McGuirk recently said Hillary Clinton, after her speech in Selma, Alabama, would have "corn-rows and gold teeth" by the time her campaign against Barack Obama was finished. He also called her "a bitch." Back in the '90s, Imus referred to a black New York Times reporter as "the cleaning lady."

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert pointed out this week, a 60 Minutes segment on Imus from 1998 confronts him with evidence that he said McGuirk was there "to do nigger jokes." Imus admitted using that word. And yet, his employers, his broadcasters did nothing. Imus regularly called Arabs "ragheads," called women "skanks," used many dismissive terms for Jewish people ("thieving Jews," "beanie-wearing little Jew boy"), and used several gay epithets, such as "lesbo" and "faggot."

What is it about talk radio that brings out the sort of people who routinely use this kind of demeaning language? Perhaps in their search for greater ratings, networks use the lowest common denominator to get the most listeners. That would be nothing new -- television networks have done it for years. (Fear Factor, anyone?) As the web site MediaMatters.org points out on a regular basis, the airwaves are full of personalities who spew bigotry on every day. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Michael Savage are but a few of the "commentators" that remind us every day that racism and sexism are not old prejudices that have been conquered, but rather vibrant cancers that need constant vigilance. An excellent piece today by Harvey Fierstein shows how far the culture still has to go.

Imus' defenders have said that CBS and MSNBC acted hastily and that a national dialogue should have been started on these issues. Assuming that what we've heard for the last ten days wasn't a national dialogue, what is it they wanted to discuss? Whether racist comedy is okay? Whether we want to give it legitimacy by having it fester on the airwaves? Who is the dialogue with, Michael Richards? Perhaps the end result of the dialogue was that people convinced advertisers not to support public personalities who demean others based on race and sex.

Don't anyone cry for Imus. He's going to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars and live very well the rest of his life. But his 30 years on the radio, unfortunately, left many people with the notion that making fun of someone's color is okay and demeaning someone because of their gender or religion or sexual orientation is too. Despite the money he made, that's a pretty shameful way to have lived your life.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Obama Shows There's Money In Politics Without Lobbyists

Barack Obama's impressive first-quarter fund-raising says a lot about how this presidential race is shaping up. The $25 million his campaign has reported for the first three months of 2007 nearly matches Hillary Clinton's tally, and Obama lists 100,000 donors, more than twice the number Clinton lists. Obama's appeal could be broader, and a large donor base such as that could give him an advantage in the months ahead, when contributors get tired of writing checks every quarter.

The larger point that Obama's fund-raising illustrates is the strong support Democratic candidates have over their Republican counterparts. Democrats have raised about $80 million, while Republicans have raised about $50 million. The difference is striking because Republicans - long the party of the very wealthy and of corporate favor - have always held a financial advantage in fund-raising contests. Among the top three Democratic candidates, they list nearly 200,000 contributors. Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney list 60,000 and 33,000 contributors, respectively. (Rudy Guiliani's campaign did not disclose the number of donors.)

Republican candidate McCain was thought to be the favorite for his party's nomination, but yet his funds lagged Guiliani and Romney. McCain raised $12.5 million to Guiliani's nearly $15 million and Romney's $20 million. That news couldn't have come at a worse time for McCain, who has been severely criticized for his claims that the Baghdad streets are getting safer. Both western journalists and Baghdad merchants have said McCain is dead wrong for claiming that Americans can walk around without protection and that segments of the city are secure. That McCain walked around Baghdad wearing a bullet-proof vest with dozens of soldiers in tow and helicopters overhead seemed almost an admission of his mistake. Hardly what the people expect from the "straight talk" candidate.

Before the announcement of his first-quarter totals, Obama was quoted as saying he raised "obscene" amounts of money. He's right, of course, but for right now, that's how the game is played. Candidates who want to be competitive need very large sums of money. The influence of money in politics assures that those with large amounts of it can participate, while those who can't afford it must sit on the sidelines and watch. Money has been declared to be protected speech, which begs the question: What does no money mean? No speech? Once upon a time, citizens had to own property to be able to vote. We've now reached a point where people have to have large amounts of money to participate in elections, and since only the very wealthy have that kind of money to spread around, most people are left out and apathetic about a process that doesn't include them.

But that, too, is a notion that is being challenged in this election. John Edwards - whose campaign raised more than $14 million - said that 80% of all contributions were $100 or less.Thousands of Obama's supporters contributed only $25 or less - some as little as $5. What this says is that anyone with enough money for a pack of cigarettes or popcorn at the movies can participate. Internet fundraising is also leveling the field and allowing people of modest means to have a say in the election. Both Obama and Edwards have made use of Internet techniques to their advantage. Both candidates maintain their connection to their supporters over the web, as does Clinton. Any campaign that isn't sending e-mails to supporters on a virtually daily basis - keeping people informed of their policies and the status of their campaigns, and just letting them know they're still alive - isn't using the Internet effectively. Every e-mail doesn't have to be a request for money (and shouldn't be), but constant communication, along with alerts to public and television appearances, is a great alternative to reliance on the media.

Ultimately, what is really needed is public financing of all elections, along with a requirement that all broadcasters - as part of the public interest requirement for their broadcast license - provide free air time to the candidates. (After all, most money in elections goes to fund expensive television ad time.) That will really be a huge step to stopping the poisonous influence of corporate money on political contests. To get to that point, though, leaders like Obama and Edwards are needed, because the George W. Bushes of the political world are never going to limit the influence of money, since that's what got them there in the first place.

Edwards and Obama have each said in statements that none of the money they raised in the first quarter came from political action committees or federal lobbyists, and that their campaigns are not accepting such funds. If that had been the rule rather than the exception, how much would the other candidates have raised? If all politicians had done the same years ago, there's no way someone like George Bush would have become president. Think of all the lives that could have been saved. That's what's at stake with money in politics, and why such change is necessary.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Romney Chooses Running Mates - If That's Okay With James Dobson

Despite an unsettled field for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is already talking about potential vice-presidential running mates. At a campaign stop in South Carolina, he threw out the names of South Carolina's own conservative governor, Mark Sanford, the ethically-challenged former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and the religious right's favorite son, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

The move is, of course, presumptuous, but Romney must be willing to risk seeming a little arrogant so that he can convince conservatives that he's their guy. The extreme right-wing of the Republican Party hasn't been happy with front-runners Romney, Rudy Guiliani and John McCain. They're not even happy with Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, who is said to be considering a run, and looking to fill a void for the religious right. (Doesn't look like that's happening, at least not if James Dobson - the hard right's voice - has anything to say.)

Romney had the nicest things to say about Jeb Bush, saying that "I love him." Then, seemingly admitting that President George W. Bush's standing with the public is a problem, he added "If his name weren't Bush, he'd be running for president, I'm convinced." How lucky for the rest of us that the younger Bush didn't adopt a stage name, or we'd see a continuation of this dynasty of disaster. Sanford is an obvious name to drop for anyone hoping to score points with the conservative voters in South Carolina. Christian conservatives tried to enlist Sanford himself as a presidential candidate, although he declined.

Meanwhile, conservative religious guru James Dobson, who seems to think he's choosing the next president all by himself, said Romney "can't win" because "there are conservative Christians who will not vote for him because of his Mormon faith." Out the vast field of candidates, Dobson only had good things to say about Gingrich, whom he called "the brightest guy out there." It seems Newt must be a shining example of religious redemption for Dobson to praise him like that.

The Republican Party is being held hostage by religious conservatives like Dobson, since every candidate seems to feel the need to genuflect to the religious right. McCain's gone back on his comments that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were "agents of intolerance" and even Guiliani - tough guy from Brooklyn - seems to feel it is necessary to qualify those of his socially-moderate stances that the religious right doesn't like.

Romney - who has his own troubles with the religious conservatives who don't like his back-tracking on gay rights and his Mormon faith - is clearly trying to gain favor with them by choosing three potential running mates that he knows the right approves: Sanford, whom they tried to enlist; Bush, who's been called one of the religious right's "strongest elected officials;" and Gingrich, who practically has Dobson's Focus on the Family seal of approval stamped on his forehead. All of which is designed to get an endorsement from Dobson, who claims he only talks about politics as "a private individual," so as not to upset the non-profit status of his group.

If ever there was anybody who needed a tax audit, it's Dobson. To paraphrase George Carlin, if he wants to talk politics and influence elections, let him pay his admission fee like everyone else.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Edwards Campaign Shaping Election

Despite the news of his wife's recurrence of cancer, John Edwards said that his campaign for president will continue "strongly." There is a lot ahead of them that they can't possibly know yet, but if there's anyone running a strong - and honest - campaign in this presidential election so far, it is John Edwards.

Candidates for political office, especially presidential candidates, are often short on specifics. Everyone knows the routine: a candidate promises a fresh start, new ideas, a way out of bad prior policy decisions, a strengthening of vaguely defined values, and a host of other proposals that sound good but lack specificity. Perhaps the best example of this was Richard Nixon's promise in the 1968 campaign of a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War, which he would only disclose if he won. (He did, and there wasn't any, as he later admitted in his memoirs.)

Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina and former vice-presidential candidate, seems as fed up with that kind of campaign as the rest of the country. In the few short months since it began, his campaign has released detailed plans for health care reform and combating climate change, among other proposals. He was the first to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign, prompting responses from the other candidates. His campaign declared itself carbon neutral recently, presenting a standard for the others to match. He was also the first Democrat to pull out of a Nevada debate that was being run by Fox News, known for its hostility to Democrats. Other candidates followed suit and eventually, the Nevada Democratic Party dropped Fox. Whether he is ultimately successful or not, there is no denying Edwards is strongly shaping this election.

While President Bush is sticking with his idea of voluntary measures to combat global warming, this week Edwards proposed mandatory caps on the emission of heat-trapping gases and stricter standards for auto emissions as well. Not only does Edwards reject the idea that these proposals will harm the economy, he said the government could help in creating a new energy-based economy with the benefit of adding one million new jobs, a feat that the Bush administration hasn't come close to in their years in office. The League of Conservation Voters recently issued a statement praising the Edwards plan, along with a similar bill that is in Congress. The League said Edwards' plan shows "he understands the magnitude of the challenge before us."

Meanwhile, Edwards' health care plan has drawn praise from Princeton economist and New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman, who called it a "smart, serious proposal." ("Edwards Gets It Right," New York Times, Feb. 9, 2007.) Long on specifics, the Edwards plan would guarantee insurance for all citizens and monitor insurance companies who "game the system" by only insuring healthy people. Edwards even went so far as to say he'd pay for this program by eliminating the Bush tax cut on the wealthiest of Americans, which would simply put them back where they were during the Clinton years. No other candidate has been bold enough to say anything of the kind.

Which is not to say they won't. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson may yet come out with detailed plans to rival Edwards', but so far they haven't. (Krugman quotes Clinton as saying she is "not ready to be specific.") The same goes for the Republican candidates. And it's worth keeping in mind that Bush's plan for health care includes taxing the middle class on their "golden" plans -- an idea that was dead in the water as soon as he presented it.

The Edwards campaign, so far, is the only one talking about poverty in America, and around the world. While he hasn't used the "Two Americas" theme of his 2004 campaign extensively this time around, Edwards has been a constant voice on this subject. The Boston Globe said in 2005 that "Edwards got it right about poverty."

Yet every time the issue comes up, the Republicans cry that the other side is trying to wage "class warfare," which is their way of not talking about the subject. If any party's policies have created warfare among the classes, it is the Republicans, who for more than 25 years have adopted economic policies that have hurt working people. Meanwhile, Edwards - who ran the poverty center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill - recently said confronting global poverty would actually make the U.S. safer, since terrorism thrives in failed states.

We wish John and Elizabeth Edwards the very best in their latest struggle. We hope her health remains as good as it appeared yesterday for many years to come. And we hope to see both of them stay on the campaign trail as long as they can, running a different kind of campaign and, in the process, creating a legacy of which the nation can continue to be proud. Whether or not they end up in the White House in January 2009, the Edwardses have already presented a better presidential campaign.

More info: Edwards Gets It Right (NYT, subscription required)

Friday, March 9, 2007

Is It Too Late For Rehab?

Newt Gingich is sorry. He's admitted that he cheated on his wife while he was pushing impeachment on Bill Clinton for lying about an affair. So he told right-wing crackpot James Dobson that he "sought God's forgiveness" and has "gotten on my knees."

Of course, Gingrich is pushing a new book called Rediscovering God in America, and is saying he will run for the Republican presidential nomination "as a last resort." What he means is that if the front-runners for the GOP nomination aren't satisfactory to the hard-core right, he'll step in as their savior. Oh, and did he mention he's selling a book with "God" in the title? And that he's really, really sorry for that affair (and those three marriages)?

Meanwhile, Gingrich is pulling in $50,000 for every speaking appearance (he makes about 60 a year) and running a for-profit "think tank" on health care that promotes the business interests of its backers (yeah, that's a great academic exercise), according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 21. Also in January, Gingrich's new 527 group, "American Solutions for Winning the Future," got a $1 million donation from Sheldon Adelson, a casino CEO and prominent donor to the GOP. (Wow, a new group that includes the title of Gingrich's previous book! Quite a coincidence!) Fortune magazine, which disclosed Gingrich's speaking fees, said his post-Congressional career is "making him rich." He's also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the same think tank funded by Exxon that is offering reward money to any scientists or economists who are willing to dispute the U.N's report on global warming.

Gingrich claims his "American Solutions" group is bipartisan (is there any 527 group that is?), but yet the group proposes private savings accounts for Social Security, "patriotic education" in public schools and appointment of judges that understand "the centrality of God in American history." It's amazing how much stock Gingrich is taking in God these days now that he might need the right-wing religious vote if he chooses to run for president (expect an obscene amount of religious rhetoric if he does).

Calling his bid for the presidency a "last resort" (gee, are we imposing?), Gingrich said he wants to influence the race by providing both parties with "solutions" to health care, energy, education, national security and immigration issues. Lucky for us that he's set up a for-profit company to do all that.

Has there ever been a bigger political phony that Newt Gingrich? His few years of prominence in the 1990s were highlighted by mean-spirited attacks on the poor, back-handed attempts to gut environmental regulation and legendary power-grabs. He's still at it, too: At last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, Gingrich alleged that the reason disaster hit New Orleans' Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina is "a failure of citizenship." He said the people were "so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane." Never mind the ineptitude of those in charge at the federal level or the lack of response or the disdain for the role of government that conservatives have which he helped establish, it's the peoples' fault!

He has skillfully played the "family values" card throughout his political career, and yet he's an admitted adulterer. He's also a draft-dodger, having avoided service in Vietnam with a combination of student and family deferments, and marrying one of his teachers when he was 19 years old. His first wife - with whom he discussed the terms of divorce when she was hospitalized - sued him for child support when utilities were going to be cut off.

He's also bounced 22 checks during the House Banking scandal, and violated House ethics rules for using taxpayer donations for his personal and political purposes. (He had, at one point or another, 84 ethics charges filed against him while in the House.) He's appeared on Fox News quite a bit - and why not, since they're politically attuned to one another? - and has even hosted specials for them. But is that because Rupert Murdoch owns his ass? In 1995, one of Murdoch 's publishing companies offered Gingrich $4.5 million for a book, while Murdoch was having problems with a complaint from NBC that Fox is a foreign-owned network (which is against U.S. law). Gingrich and Murdoch had several meetings (one reportedly on a park bench) but said their purpose was politics, not contracts. (Gingrich eventually took a lucrative royalty-based deal in lieu of the $4.5 million.)

By the way, news of Gingrich's affair during the impeachment period isn't new. In 1998, it was reported that he told his (second) wife that he was leaving her for a woman 23 years younger than him. The news apparently came to her when Gingrich called his mother-in-law to give her birthday wishes, and then asked to speak to his wife, who was brought to tears by the news. By that point, Gingrich had allegedly been seeing the younger woman for at least three years (she eventually became his third wife). Meanwhile, in his professional capacity, Gingrich said those who didn't support the so-called morality of his allies in the Christian Coalition were "abnormal."

Let's not forget that Gingrich recently said that free speech should be curtailed in the U.S. in order to fight terrorism. Since President Bush has told the nation that this is a war unlike any other and could last generations, Gingrich is proposing a fundamental - and for all intents and purposes, permanent - restriction of freedoms. Gingrich has - both in the past and in the present - advocated a second Constitutional Convention, at which the U.S. Constitution would be revised. This is a man who respects our national heritage? Anyone who doesn't believe in the Constitution shouldn't be running for an office where the job is to protect the Constitution.

The only thing that's new in Gingrich's "confession" to James Dobson is his penitence. All he has to do now is go to rehab and blame a bottle or a pill or bad sexual urges. Throughout his career and his personal life, Gingrich has been a hypocrite, using "family values" to motivate voters whose morality he doesn't share, while acting as an agent in the government for powerful corporate interests and enriching himself in the process. Don't dismiss him; he's as dangerous a political entity and a genuine threat to democracy and freedom as this country has ever seen.

There aren't many who could claim the title of "most despicable" from the likes of Tricky Dick Nixon (although there are several in the current Bush administration vying for the title), but Newt Gingrich qualifies for and has achieved his own grotesque stature.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Let's Impeach the President

How is it that the right wing portrays anyone who talks about impeaching George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as nutcases, yet acted as though the impeachment of Bill Clinton was the most important action of government since the signing of the Constitution? How is it that they equate Clinton's actions, which were of a personal nature, with Bush and Cheney's, which have resulted in the deaths of thousands, not to mention a shredded Constitution?

On Tuesday, more than 30 towns in Vermont passed resolutions calling for the impeachment of the president for misleading the nation on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and for engaging in illegal wiretapping, among other charges. Richard Nixon faced charges that were less severe, and he resigned when it became clear his impeachment was imminent. The political winds were against Nixon, and have been in Bush's favor, although that's changing.

Most now believe - finally - that Bush and Cheney misled the country into war, and as the Iraq situation gets worse with each passing day, more Americans see the mess they've gotten the country into, and the question arises: How do you hold them accountable?

Republicans won't even let the Senate debate a resolution that would simply criticize the president's decisions on the war, so how can we expect them to allow impeachment to come up? Well, we can't. The House of Representatives could bring up the issue of impeachment - even though Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is not in favor of it - but the Senate would never convict Bush, and so, unlike Nixon, Bush would never feel impeachment was imminent and would never resign.

So why are the good people of Vermont (and other states as well) pushing it? It's because average citizens have been so helpless to stop the Bush administration's destructive policies that passing resolutions of impeachment is the best way to channel and express their outrage. This president and vice president have so threatened the rule of law - and placed themselves above it - that impeachment, however improbable, is the only option left. Add to the mix the administration's constant breaking of the law, and you've got a case for high crimes and misdemeanors, the standard the Constitution requires for removal.

It is indeed a topsy-turvy world when Bill Clinton could be impeached for not telling the truth about an affair, but George Bush cannot for starting a war under false pretenses and violating explicit laws about spying on U.S. citizens. People want to impeach Bush because of his policies and the substance of what he has done in office. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton because they didn't like him.

Clinton was villified by the right wing from the early days of his presidential campaign. Conservatives hated him for his baby-boomer background and intellectual openness. The cultural wars of the 1960s have never gone away, and they manifested in the 1990s battle between Clinton and the Republican-led Congress. (Right-wing extremist Pat Buchanan explicitly declared a "culture war" during the 1992 campaign. Newt Gingrich once called the Clintons "counter-culture McGoverniks." Sounds like a compliment where we're sitting.) They just didn't like him - or his wife - or approve of their lifestyle. So when they could embarass him publicly for having an affair, they did. Shut down the government! The president kissed a girl!

Today, there are plenty of people who don't like George Bush and Dick Cheney. Does that mean the president and vice president are bad people? We don't know. We'll never know if Bush cheats on his wife, is short-tempered with his children, or kicks his dog. To the extent that those things don't make him a hypocrite, they don't matter.

What matters is the ideas behind the administration. Experts say Bush administration policies have actually made the country less safe in the wake of 9/11. The wiretapping program clearly violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And lying to the people, massaging intelligence reports to say what you want them to say and commiting the country to war has got to be high on the list of high crimes for any president. (Neil Young wrote a song about it last year, "Let's Impeach the President," and the lyrics spell out the reasons.)

Conservatives will always say "don't put the country through it," referring to impeachment. But it was okay when Clinton was president? It's okay to put the country through a mangling of the Constitution, a redistribution of wealth to those who need it least and an illegal and seemingly never-ending war? How much longer do we have to hear this Republican hypocrisy?

If there was any justice, impeachment proceedings would begin tomorrow and Bush and Cheney would be packing their bags. But the political reality is very different, despite what the people of Vermont (and many of the rest of us) might think. There are certainly those who would say Bush and Cheney are patriots, but how is patriotism defined? They haven't been loyal to the ideas that the nation was founded upon, or which it has fought to protect. They've shown disdain for the very concept of government, and against all reason and logic, have pushed ahead with politics and policies that divide the country and harm its citizens. Greater disrespect has never been paid to the nation's laws and traditions, and - absent impeachment - a greater confounding of justice has never been seen.