Sun-Times Jan. 2, 2005 - Sep. 11, 2005
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 debt.
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 relief effort.
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
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 enemy...”
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 deserve it.
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 sensibly.
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 airwaves.
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 head.
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 go-to guy.
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 so forth.
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 ambivalence.
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
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 middle ground.
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 efficacies.
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 decades.
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 for everyone.
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 presidents.
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 hand.
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 physical form.
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 Social Security.
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 and supporters.
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 state.
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 of Congress.
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 complain.
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 and initiatives.
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 same time.
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 dead.
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.
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 U.S. unions.
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 place.
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 object.
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 idea.
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 the enemy.
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 Republican-led CPB.
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 and elsewhere.
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 and Iraq.
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 light.
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’ health plan.
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 all.
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, comes 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, N.M..
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 days.
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" casting call.
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 of town.
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
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, D.C.
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 president, wants.
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 recess vacation?
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 Tom DeLay.
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 families.
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 consumer-friendly purpose.
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 Sheehan.
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 souls.
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 all that.
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 Democrats.
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 can.
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 watched.
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 from.
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 safe?
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.