Monday, October 24, 2005

How about a contract for ALL America?


Call it Security Starts at Home, or Good Government Means Clean Government, or A Contract for ALL America. Call it whatever you want. But it's past time for the Democratic Party to run on something other than, "We're not the other guys."

It's time, in other words, for Democrats to lead.

Certainly the Republicans have given them an opening. They've had a run of news about as toxic as the black water that surged through New Orleans streets after Hurricane Katrina. Congressional leaders and top White House aides are under investigation or indictment. The late and ineffective response to Katrina's devastation poked gaping holes in the President's public persona as a man of action and resolve. And Harriet Miers, the President's nominee for the Supreme Court, has become a lightning rod for criticism from within his own party. That's just the short list against a backdrop of a failed war and mounting and mountainous debt.
But before Democrats dance on the table at poll numbers consistently showing George W. Bush with the support of less than 40 percent of the public, they should recognize those same polls show support for congressional Democrats and Republicans alike even lower. It is those numbers that suggest the public won't readily embrace a Democratic alternative in 2006 as long the Democrats are perceived to be content to hide in the shadows rather than promoting a coherent agenda of action and hope.
Given the deafening silence from Washington, I thought I'd do my bit to help. (Forgive my lack of credentials; I've never owned a baseball team, headed a bar association or had anything to do with Arabian horses.)

Here, then, are a few surefire Democratic themes:

* Security starts at home

This could be the slogan to draw attention to any number of issues at which this Admnistration has failed. Let's start with economic security. The Republicans have repeatedly beat back attempts to raise the minimum wage to a level at which people can afford to feed themselves. That's part of the reason the number of those living below the poverty level is 37 million and rising. Other than rewarding their friends with no-bid contracts, the Administration also has not articulated any coherent plan for helping to reconstruct New Orleans or to remploy the tens of thousands thrown out of work there either. It's not too late for Democrats to mount a campaign for the contemporary equivalent of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, but with an urban twist. Why not hire displaced New Orleans residents to clean their city of debris and rebuild it? Why not give new tax breaks to those who do something rather than own something -- to people willing to volunteer time and expertise to help revive New Orleans? And why not speak out at every opportunity for a fair minimum wage?

Let's move to safety. Much has been written about the Administration's failure to invest in local policing, in security of our ports and train lines and nuclear plants. Under this heading, Democrats also might point out the need to keep the National Guard at home to help out in times of national emergency and to invest in new equipment for those guard units. Not only was nearly a third of the Louisiana and Mississippi Guard overseas in Iraq when Katrina struck but nearly all the units' best equipment was there with them. To avoid Republican charges that they are "tax and spend liberals," the Democrats should calculate how much has been spent in tax breaks for the top 1 percent of the population under George W. Bush and show what could be done by redistributing half of that to internal support and security. It would go a long way. Or Democrats could show how the direct and indirect costs of the Iraq War -- estimated in one New York Times graphic at over $1 trillion in a three- to five-year time span -- might better be spent strengthening security at home.

* Good government means clean government

If Democrats can't have a field day with the corruption rampant in the ruling party they should retire from the political ring. It's not just the investigations into the arrogance and abuse of power of Monsieurs DeLay and Rove and Libby and Frist and Abramoff (and more undoubtedly to come). It's also the cronyism that has led to the likes of Michael D. Brown as head of FEMA, Karen Hughes as an Assistant Secretary of State or -- yes -- Harriet Miers as a nominee for the Supreme Court. And it's the secrecy that has increased spying within this country, shut off public records to the press, gutted the Freedom of Information Act and so distorted American notions of just behavior in wartime that torture of prisoners overseas has surfaced time and time again in Iraq and Afghanistan alike. In discussing our overextended military, Democrats can start by taking a stand for decency, integrity and transparency in the actions of our military overseas. The U.S. Senate, remember, has voted 90-9 to prevent torture of U.S. prisoners overseas. But the President is threatening to veto the measure. It's an untenable position that the Democrats could easily turn against him.

* In a global world, multilateralism isn't a choice, it's a necessity

If Democrats can't agree on whether to pull out of Iraq and when, I'd hope they could agree on a call for multinational involvement in beginning talks and actions leading to U.S. disengagement. The Bush Administration's Coalition of the Willing was never much more than a slogan. But now so many countries have pulled out of Iraq that the Administration makes little effort to hide the unilateral nature of the war. But a coalition we may well need to help us figure out a dignified and less-than-defeated means of extricating ourselves from a country that's teetering now on the brink of Civil War, new Constitution or not. And we clearly need the world's help in keeping, for example, a worldwide pandemic of bird flu at bay and in fighting the global warming forces that made 2005 the warmest year on record. The Bush Administration has thumbed its nose at the world since it came to power, from the appointment of John Bolton to the United Nations to our refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. Democrats can offer a clear alternative here, too.

Once I'm offered a paycheck -- or at least a baseball team to run -- I'd be delighted to add to this list. But in truth Democrats, that's your job. If you hope to win, the time to start is now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A whiff of Rovian rhetoric


Mark my words: Karl Rove's new rock group, The Hatcheteers, began tearing into special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald this morning with arguments so cynical that they'll take your breath away.

No. Karl Rove, facing a possible indictment, isn't stupid enough to publicly take on his accuser.
He never operates in the public view. But John Tierney's column in today's New York Times sure reeks of Rovian logic and tactics.

As rumors spread of imminent indictments in the investigation of the Valerie Plame/CIA operative leak, Tierney positioned the Republican response in three ways.

1. By branding the scandal with a snide moniker that undercuts its very validity. Tierney has coined the logo "Nadagate" in the hope that the press buys into it. That precisely the kind of "out front and on message" approach the administration has used repeatedly to frame the words of American journalism. (A recent example is "up or down vote," repeated so often by the Bush administration in connection with the approval of federal judges that it's now used regularly and mindlessly by journalists all over the country.)

2. By warning journalists that an indictment of Rove or I. Lewis Libby, the vice-president's chief of staff, for hawking classified information could, if it came to pass, dry up the ocean of off-the-record leakers in Washington. By undercutting the prosecutor's moral authority with the people who will translate the case to the public, Tierney is trying to change the tone of press coverage.

3. By suggesting that plagiarism and obstruction of justice aren't real crimes anyway. This is cynicism as an art form, particularly by supporters of the political party that spent months and millions of dollars imipeaching a Democratic president for lying about nothing more central to national security than his sex life. Writes Tierney: "Besides switching to the vague law against disclosing classified information, (Fitzgerald) might indict Libby or Rove for perjury or obstruction of justice -- crimes that occurred only because of the investigation (emphasis added) .... Unless Fitzgerald comes up with something unexpected, neither is Nadagate."

Translation: It's fine for government officials to lie under oath, to smear undercover agents (just politics as usual) and to strong-arm others to keep the truth from getting out. It's fine, that is, as long as they are Republican officials devoted to fighting the War on Terror.

Expect to see much more of these three tacks. John Tierney has merely fired the first round.
You can bet the rest of the Right will be on message as it tries to divert attention from the sleaze
oozing out of Washington.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

All the news that's fit to spin?

This article appeared on on Monday, 10/17/05


"The Times is in turmoil. " That's how media critic Howard Kurtz began CNN's Reliable Sources Sunday. If he's right, it seems to be a turmoil at least in part of the paper's own making.

At long last, The New York Times this weekend printed its version of the Judith Miller saga, including a substantial piece by Miller on her testimony before a federal grand jury.

Substantial, I should say, in length. Because the article seemed to lack a significant component of the truth. When it came to revealing who might have given Miller the name "Valerie Flame," jotted in one of her notebooks, the veteran reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner wrote that she couldn't remember. That's it. She couldn't remember -- even though the outing of the covert CIA operative, whose actual name is Plame, was at the center of the controversy that landed Miller in jail and even though the words "Valerie Flame" appeared in the same notebook as notes from an interview with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, vice-president Cheney's chief of staff. Miller says she does not believe Libby himself provided the name because the notes from his interview were in another part of the notebook. Story finished.

So says Judith Miller anyway -- and so, it seems, accepts The Times by running both her long explanation and a longer staff piece in which the reporters tell readers that Miller neither would show them her notes nor answer many of their questions.

But who is The Times kidding here? Does the paper consider it a service to its readers to print what any skeptical journalist might well consider to be a lie: that Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify and name a confidential source, can't remember who her key source is? Does The Times management truly believe her? And if not, why print such an assertion? Better that she write nothing at all.

For those who don't live within the sometimes narrow confines of journalism, some context is in order. Miller went to jail when she was subpoenaed to testify in a special prosecutor's investigation of who had leaked the name of Plame to the press. In addition to being a CIA operative, Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson IV. He is the diplomat who infuriated the Bush admnistration by publicly contradicting its claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, a story used by the administration to prop up its assertion that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. It is against the law in some circumstances to reveal the name of an undercover operative in the CIA.

Interestingly, Judith Miller never wrote about Valerie Plame; columnist Robert Novak did. But somehow -- it's still not clear exactly why -- the investigation of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald led to her doorstep. She chose to go to jail rather than talk, ostensibly protecting one of the most sacrosanct principles of journalism: Reporters who grant their sources anonymity must protect them.

But from the start, this smelled bad. Why is it a reporter's job to protect someone powerful within government who is trying to do someone else harm? Why would a news organization even print a story based on such an offer of protection? (When I was an editor for the San Jose Mercury News, the managing editor established a policy that the veil of anonymity could not be used to attack someone else.) And why did the journalistic establishment, or at least the publisher and editor of The New York Times, so quickly rally around Judith Miller, a reporter already under a cloud of suspicion for writing sourced articles in the run-up to the Iraq war that helped establish the administration's claim -- later proven false -- that the Iraqi government was on the cusp of having weapons of mass destruction?

Reading between the lines of a front-page Times article today about the Miller case, it's clear that many of her colleagues are perplexed and downright angry at their paper for special treatment Miller has received from its editors. It's equally clear that she remains a favorite of the publisher who has taken her cause as his own without digging deep enough to find out what her agenda might be beyond protecting a source.

I'm not sure I want to speculate on that agenda, but something is fishy here. Let's just say that perhaps Miller has reported on insiders so long that she's forgotten her job isn't to be one herself. If so, in the second term of an administration that's manipulated and at times even infiltrated the press like no administration before, that's a dangerous place to be.

Here Miller provides some of the evidence herself.

First, she implies in her article that she in the past had government clearance to look at classified documents. "I told Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance," she writes, "given my special embedded status in Iraq." It is a sentence, deep in her article, that former CBS correspondent Bill Lynch jumped on in a letter to the Poynter Institute's Jim Romenesko, who compiles a widely read column on the media at Such security clearance, Lynch suggests, "is as close as one can get to government licensing of journalists and the New York Times (if it knew) should never have allowed her to become so compromised."

Why? He explains: Anyone cleared to look at classified documents would have to sign a "standard and legally binding agreement" that she could not reveal the contents of such documents -- a decision that flies in the face of the journalist's role as the public's voice and watchdog. The price for getting inside information, in other words, would be a legally binding promise not to reveal it. That's hardly a compact of trust between writer and reader.

Secondly, Miller in her own article, acknowledges agreeing to a source relationship with Libby that clearly would mislead the public. Libby in his second interview with Miller asked that instead of being identified as a "senior administration official," he would like to be identified as a "former Hill staffer." Miller says she agreed to the new ground rules "because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill." What she didn't say is that such a sourcing agreement was a smokescreen, a way for him to attack Joseph Wilson with impunity and for Miller to mislead her readers into believing the critic -- in this case the vice-president's chief of staff -- was actually associated with a different branch of government.

So Judith Miller, who cut a deal to get out of jail and testify only about what Libby told her, says she can't remember who passed on the name "Valerie Flame." But she appears to know full well that she in effect gave Scooter Libby a free pass to pillory Joseph Wilson.

Whew. And journalists wonder why the public doesn't trust them anymore?


Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mon Dieu!


The drumbeat of bad news has been unrelenting. The Arctic ice cap: melting. The pillars of our pro-family, pro-flag, pro-morality Republican leadership: under indictment or investigation. The city of New Orleans: first under water, now caked in mold. And our President ... oh, our President.

It's not as if I've taken all this in stride. I spend most mornings muttering at my newspaper. My wife has to restrain me from flipping the bird to humvee road hogs, cruising down Main Street to the nearest Starbucks. I turn my TV off when King George comes on.

But all-in-all I've coped fairly well as a liberal in America, 2005. Until this. Today I learned that I may soon be pumping Pinot Noir into my tank -- French Pinot Noir. C'est vrai. C'est tragique. I love the land where Freedom Fries are still simply just French. France, to me, is the home of all things stylish, all things romantic, life carefree. It is the country of three-hour meals, wide boulevards and women worth watching as they walk down them. A place where guys really do wear berets and argue animatedly on street corners while their dogs sniff each other indelicately. The cradle of consuming cuisine -- and overflowing carafes of vin blanc and vin rouge to wash it down.

And now this? I have it on the authority of my New York Times: By the end of this year, France will turn 100 million liters of wine -- "enough for 133 million bottles" -- into crystal-clear ethanol. What next? Camembert converted to crazy glue? Mon Dieu.

"If my grandfather could taste what I'm turning into alcohol," vintner Olivier Gibelin told The Times. "he'd turn over in his grave."

So please. Forgive me in advance, if you see me stopped by the road in a few months, siphoning gas from the tanks of those humvees. What is afternoon cheese and crackers without wine? I might as well enjoy a bit now before the Bush-authorized Army marches into Lexington, birthplace of the American revolution, to cordon us all behind the lines of the killer bird flu quarantine.