Thursday, July 3, 2008

Seven Things Barack Obama Should Do to Keep from Blowing It

ASPEN - I took part in an interesting panel last night at the Aspen Ideas Festival, discussing the ins and outs of Barack Obama and John McCain with David Brooks, Stuart Rothenberg, Jim Wallis, Jonathan Capehart, Amy Goodman, and Jonathan Alter moderating.

I was particularly interested in the takes of Brooks and Rothenberg. They were smart, knowledgeable, eloquent... and utterly wrong.

Brooks was even-handed with both candidates. He suggested that McCain's biggest failing was his weakness as a manager (I said I was far more concerned with the disastrous direction in which he wants to lead the country). And he criticized Obama for lacking the "Senatorial skills" of either McCain or Hillary Clinton. (In an unrelated riff, Brooks let the audience know that, based on an off-the-record conversation with President Bush, he could categorically assure us that we would not be bombing Iran.)

Towards the end of the panel we were all asked whom the nominees should pick as their VP. One of Brooks' recommendations for Obama was Tom Daschle because the former-Senator understands how to get things done. In Brooks World, the presidency is all about keeping the machinery greased and the cogs of government running smoothly. It's leadership as McDonald's management: keep serving up the tried and true, with maximum efficiency.

Rothenberg -- astute, detailed, and supremely confident -- dipped into his political analyst's bag and pulled out a steaming chunk of conventional wisdom, echoing his recent declaration that "This whole election is about swing voters. Whoever wins them, will win the election." Where have we heard that before? Oh, yeah, that's right -- from countless inside-the-Beltway pundits and Democratic strategists in every election the Democrats have lost, going back a generation.

But, as we've seen, Barack Obama is not immune to the seductive call of the Conventional Wisdom sirens. And it's a call that's only going to get louder. He'll hear it from the chorus of pundits standing outside his window -- folks like The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, who today counseled Obama that being labeled a "typical politician" is a very good thing for him because it will assure wary voters that he won't do anything rash.

He'll hear it from some of the advisors inside his campaign. Folks like the aforementioned Daschle, for whom caution is part of his political DNA. Don't forget, as Senate Majority Leader, Daschle had gone along with the president's desire to hold the vote authorizing war with Iraq before the 2002 elections because he and many other Democrats believed an early vote could help shift the focus off the war and onto the economy, which they felt was their strong suit. And we saw how well that strategy turned out. Daschle was also the poster child for Democratic spinelessness on the war, going from supporting the use of force to questioning it to ultimately supporting it with his vote because he felt it was crucial for America "to speak with one voice at this critical time." And we know how well that turned out, too.

Obama will also hear the siren call from inside his own head. According to Brooks, Obama's overriding personal characteristic is caution.

So, to counter the conventional wisdom pundits, the cautious campaign advisers, and his own inner cautiousness, I'm offering Obama the following suggestions for staying true to the vision and message that took him from longshot "unlikely candidate" to presidential frontrunner -- and for avoiding the fate of the many before him who fell prey to the misguided belief that the path to the White House runs down the middle of the road.

1) Load up your Kindle with passages from leaders who were looking to fundamentally change the country and following an inner compass, not the latest focus-group results. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be a good place to start.

"Some men see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'" (RFK)
"There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right." (King)

2) Load up your iPod with passages from your own speeches. They've inspired others; now let them re-ignite the inspirational leader in you.

"This campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice - to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.... That's why I'm in this race. Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation."

3) Get your campaign to give you a printout of the names of the over 1.5 million people who have donated to your campaign (at an average of $197 each). Give that list a read every day; feel the heft. And remember -- sorry, Stu Rothenberg -- that the tried-and-untrue swing voter strategy is what has led to the Democratic Party's prolonged identity crisis. Forget the fence sitters. Instead, continue to speak to those who have turned their backs on the electoral process -- those who are struggling without health care, without decent schools, without jobs, without hope.

4) Tape to your mirror the poll results from July 2004, where Kerry was up by six, and June of 1988, where Dukakis was up by 15... and don't get complacent.

5) Go to YouTube and watch the concession speeches of Kerry, Gore, and Hillary Clinton, each of whom decided to run to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters.

6) Don't let the daily petty squabbles of the campaign distract you from the core message that this campaign is not a referendum on John McCain's war record or the level of your patriotism -- but rather on the future of America. Are we a nation driven by hope and promise or a nation driven by fear?

When Bobby Kennedy was agonizing over whether or not to run in 1968, he told one of his advisors: "People are selfish. But they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country. But not when they feel threatened. That's why this is such a crucial time. We can go in either direction. But if we don't make a choice soon, it will be too late to turn things around. I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They're hungry for leadership." Forty years later, we are starving for it. Real leadership, not a poll-driven facsimile. Not swing-state, swing-voter leadership. Leadership defined by an ability to capture our imagination and a willingness to challenge us. Leadership geared to transforming the country through the audacity of hope instead of keeping it mired in the politics of fear and division.

7) Heed the old Texas advice of Dandy Don Meredith and Molly Ivins: "You got to dance with them what brung you."

Voters longing for hope, inspiration, a new kind of politics, and fundamental change are "them that brung you" to the big dance. Don't let the pundits, the advisors, and the cowards convince you to let someone else cut in.

Original here

McCain: I Never Said That I Don’t Know Much About Economics»

This week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is traveling through Colombia, making a push for a free-trade agreement. In an interview with ABC this morning from Cartagena, McCain was asked about his now infamous statement that he doesn’t understand economics well. McCain quickly interrupted the interviewer, denying he ever said this:

Q: You have admitted that you’re not exactly an expert when it comes to the economy and many have said –

McCAIN: I have not. I have not. Actually, I have not. I said that I am stronger on national security issues because of all the time I spent in the military. I’m very strong on the economy. I understand it. I have a lot more experience than my opponent.

Watch it:

In fact, McCain and his advisers have repeatedly admitted that he is weak on economic issues:

– “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” McCain said. “I’ve got Greenspan’s book.” [December 2007]

– Seeking to explain his shift on economic issues, McCain claimed: “I didn’t pay nearly the attention to those issues in the past. I was probably a ’supply-sider’ based on the fact that I really didn’t jump into the issue.” [January 2000]

– Carly Fiorina, a top McCain adviser, acknowledged that McCain has said he knows little about the economy, noting that “he did say it one time, no question, maybe twice.” [6/10/08]

The McCain campaign has conjured up a variety of dodges on the topic. Last January, when Tim Russert asked him about his “I still need to be educated” claim, McCain said, “I don’t know where you got that quote.” Adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said McCain’s admitted lack of economics knowledge was an example of his “wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor.” Last month, McCain said the media took the comments “out of context.”

Original here

Conservative Radio Host: On Failed Hunt For Bin Laden, McCain Represents ‘Continuation Of Bush Policy’»

Yesterday, conservative radio host Michael Smerconish sat in for Bill O’Reilly to host the Radio Factor. He opened the show by discussing yesterday’s front-page New York Times story detailing “how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq.”

Smerconish ripped into Bush for the “national disgrace” of leaving the deaths of September 11, 2001, unresolved. Then he declared Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to be “representative of a continuation of the current Bush policy” — a fact that may present “a break point” between himself and the Republican party in the upcoming election:

To the extent that John McCain is representative of a continuation of the current Bush policy, I think it’s a huge impediment to his campaign for President of the United States. And I told him so. My feelings about this issue are so strenuous, are so strong, that it may represent a break point between yours truly and the Republican party in terms of the candidate on the top of the ticket. … I have never voted for a Democrat for President. I could do it on the strength of this issue alone because of my disagreement with the Administration and my fear that John McCain represents more of the same.

Smerconish warned his listeners, “I’m going to tell you something else many of you are not going to want to hear,” namely, “We’ve squandered resources in Iraq.” He added, “To my ear John McCain represents more of the same on this issue.” Listen to it:

The right-wing is already outraged over Smerconish’s apostasy. Newsbusters derided his indication that he may vote for a Democrat, asking “what kind of a Republican would consider voting for someone to the left of Barbara Boxer on abortion,” and “who would leave the Iraqi people to the tender mercies of al Qaeda…?”

When he interviewed McCain earlier this month, Smerconish told him his “vote was in play.”

Digg It!


For more than two years, I’ve been a harsh critic of the Bush administration in terms of its Pakistan policy, or lack thereof. I’ve done so on my own radio show in Philadelphia, I’ve done so when guest hosting for Bill here on the Factor, I’ve done it in certain television forums and in numerous columns I’ve written for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Enquirer. And today the New York Times has confirmed all of my worst fears and concerns about what we aren’t doing to level the playing field on behalf of the 3,000 who died almost seven years ago. And it has ramifications for the political context in which we now find ourselves because — I’ll say this: I’ve interviewed, I’ve personally interviewed Senators Obama and McCain on this issue, each within the the last 60 to 90 days, John McCain just two weeks ago. And to the extent that John McCain is representative of a continuation of the current Bush policy, I think it’s a huge impediment to his campaign for President of the United States. And I told him so.

My feelings about this issue are so strenuous, they’re so strong, that it may represent a break point between yours truly and the Republican party in terms of the candidate on the top of the ticket. I’ve been a Republican since 1980. I’ve never missed an election. I don’t mean I’ve never missed a presidential election. I mean I’ve never missed an election. I’ve always split my ticket in general elections; I’ve never pulled a straight Republican lever. But, truth be told, cards on the table, I’ve never voted for a Democrat for President. I could do it on the strength of this issue alone because of my disagreement with the administration and my fear that John McCain represents more of the same. I know that’s a lot to break out on the Radio Factor but i want to tell you right up front how I feel.


We’ve let down 3,000 individuals, 3,000 innocent Americans. We’ve not brought that situation to closure. There’s been no justice on their behalf. And I’m going to tell you something else that many of you are not going to want to hear but the Times makes this clear as well: We’ve squandered resources in Iraq. Somewhere buried in this story is a report of how there was a request for more predator drones, the unmanned spacecraft, to fly over those tribal areas to try to zero in on the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leadership, and they were told, Sorry, we don’t have them because they’re all being used in Iraq. It’s a disgrace. It is a national disgrace. And I’ll play sound for you when I come back. I’ve questioned Senators Obama and McCain on this issue, and you’ll get to hear what they had to say. To my ear John McCain represents more of the same on this issue.

Original here

Military See Presidential Race Through Own Lens

Jim Morin, a West Point graduate who served as an Army captain in Iraq and Afghanistan, poses with a 2003 photograph of himself meeting with Afghan village elders in Khost, Afghanistan, during an interview with the Associated Press at his home in Arlington, Va., Thursday, June 26, 2008. Morin said he thinks Obama has the most "comprehensive solutions to complex problems" in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I have a lot of respect for McCain," he said. "Everyone in the military is going to tell you that." But he adds: "I don't think he has anything new to offer. His mind-set is really stuck maybe in the Vietnam era, and the conflicts we're facing now have nothing to do with Vietnam." (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON — Brandon Ziegler served two tours in Iraq and wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of an Army buddy who never made it home. Jim Morin saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost several friends to the war in Iraq, the latest just a month ago.

Both say their choice in the 2008 presidential election is clear: For Ziegler, it will be John McCain; for Morin, it will be Barack Obama.

Those viewing the presidential race through the lens of military service can see it entirely differently: The desire to quickly get out of Iraq is balanced against the hope to see the country stabilized; respect for one candidate's storied military history is weighed against another's relative youth; concern about the war's drain on the U.S. Treasury is measured against the wish for expanded benefits for new veterans.

Sizing up the candidates as the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Friday in South Carolina laughs and predicts "it's going to be an interesting summer." Put him in the undecided column.

McCain, with a family tradition of military service and his own history as a Vietnam prisoner of war, holds natural appeal for members of the military and for veterans. An AP-Yahoo News poll conducted last month, found that veterans favored McCain over Obama 49 percent to 32 percent, while the two candidates ran about even in the population as a whole. Three-fourths of veterans in the survey thought McCain would be a good leader of the military, compared with one-fourth who thought likewise of Obama.

Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the course of the war under President Bush and with the treatment of veterans returning home has given Obama, who did not serve in the armed forces, an opening with military voters and veterans. So does his appeal to younger people.

That Obama attracts support from some in the military is evident in dollars and cents: Among people who have donated at least $200 to a presidential campaign this election cycle, Obama has collected more than $327,000 from those identifying themselves as military personnel, while McCain has collected $224,000, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by The Associated Press.

But it is in the voices of recent veterans and, to a lesser extent, of those still serving in the military, that the McCain vs. Obama debate comes alive _ although most active-duty personnel are loath to air their views publicly because they are discouraged from mixing in politics.

Friday, who retired last year after serving as the top command sergeant major at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, said he doesn't want either candidate to take his vote for granted, based on his race or his career.

"I don't want anyone to think that because he (Obama) is of the African-American heritage that he automatically has my vote, or that McCain will get it because I was in the military," said Friday, who is black.

Friday, 49, added that he understands what McCain meant when he said the United States could have troops in Iraq for 100 years, but he doesn't necessarily support the statement. Still, he predicted, "We will be in Iraq until death do we part."

Such talk rankles Sgt. Kenyon Ralph, 24, of San Diego. Ralph, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq twice, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against The War, and is backing Obama.

Ralph, who once was a registered Republican and twice voted for Bush, says he gradually turned against the war and now can't bring himself to vote for someone who supports keeping troops in Iraq.

"What did he say? One hundred years or something," Ralph said of McCain. "We've got five down and 95 more years to go."

Sgt. Maj. Brent Dick, a 35-year-old career soldier stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, hasn't decided whom he'll vote for in November, but he agrees with McCain's stance on Iraq.

"I favor staying there until we are done with our mission," said Dick. He said the candidates' plans for Iraq will be one deciding factor in his vote but the weakening economy also is a huge concern.

Dick, who served in Afghanistan, said McCain's military service and his time as a prisoner of war are pushing him toward the senator from Arizona.

"I think that means something for their character," said Dick, interviewed as he and his 8-year-old son got ready to play golf on a recent afternoon at the Fort Bliss golf course.

Not far away, standing outside his off-post home after work, Darrell Warren, a 41-year-old staff sergeant at Fort Bliss, said he's also on the fence, but leaning the other way.

"I'm a Democrat," said Warren, who served three tours in Iraq. He said that while the war will be an issue for him in picking a president, he doesn't see military service as a must.

"They don't necessarily have to have served in the military to know about it," he said.

Ziegler, interviewed in the library at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania after attending a night class, sees three reasons to vote for McCain entwined in the Republican's military service: He connects to McCain as a war veteran, believes it makes sense during wartime to have a president who's served, and says McCain's POW history speaks to the quality of his character.

As for Obama, says Ziegler: "He's new and he's young. He's got what seem like new ideas. I don't think now's the right time for that, being that we are in Iraq."

By contrast, Morin, whose 10 years in the military included four years as a West Point cadet, thinks Obama has the most "comprehensive solutions to complex problems" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said he was disappointed by McCain's opposition to an expansion of the GI bill that would offer full military scholarships for those who serve three years in the military.

"I have a lot of respect for McCain," says Morin. "Everyone in the military is going to tell you that." But then he adds: "I don't think he has anything new to offer. His mind-set is really stuck maybe in the Vietnam era, and the conflicts we're facing now have nothing to do with Vietnam."

Richard Topping, a former Army legal officer who spent more than five years on active duty, said McCain's military record is impressive, but he finds the senator's open-ended commitment to Iraq troubling.

"I care far more about the economy, which has me leaning left this election," said Topping, who works as a Justice Department attorney. "Time for new people and new ideas here in D.C."

McCain has plenty of brass speaking out for his candidacy: While active-duty military personnel are expected to keep out of politics, more than 100 former generals and admirals have endorsed the Republican candidate.

Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the gap between military and civilian attitudes and culture, said that while members of the military, particularly the officer corps, in recent decades have favored Republicans, the enlisted force is much more politically balanced. And Kohn said there are signs that "the shine has probably worn off the Republican brand to some degree among the military," in part because of discontent with Bush over foreign policy and veterans' issues.

In what may be one sign of the trend, individuals who identified themselves as members of the uniformed services have donated 38 percent of their dollars to Democratic candidates, party committees and leadership PACs so far this election cycle, compared with 22 percent during the 2000 campaign overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political campaign money


Associated Press Writer Kimberly Hefling, AP database editor Troy Thibodeaux and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report from Washington. Also contributing: Associated Press Writers Susanne Schafer in Columbia, S.C., Chelsea Carter in San Diego, Alicia Caldwell in El Paso, Texas, and Kevin Maurer in Wilmington, N.C.

Original here

Thoreau: Routine War Degenerates the Army

But when war too, like commerce and husbandry, gets to be a routine, and men go about it as indented apprentices, the hero degenerates into a marine, and the standing army into a standing jest.

--Thoreau, People, Principles, And Politics, Journal Entry, December 1839

Thoreau then goes on to state in Civil Disobedience:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,

               "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O'er the grave where our hero was buried."

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that office to his dust at least:

               "I am too high born to be propertied,

To be a second at control,

Or useful serving-man and instrument

To any sovereign state throughout the world."

Original here

The 10 Most Awesomely Bad Moments of the Bush Presidency

By Brad Reed, AlterNet.

A shorter version of our long national nightmare.

In a lot of ways, choosing the Bush administration's 10 greatest moments -- disastrous failures, all -- is about as pointless as picking out your 10 least favorite hemorrhoids: There are entirely too many of them, and taken together they all add up to a throbbing mass of pain. But unfortunately, history demands that we at least make the effort so that future generations will understand why we perform voodoo rituals cursing Bush's memory before we go to bed every night.

Narrowing down the Bush administration's various debacles to a mere 10 was no easy feat. In fact, I expect that many people will express dismay that their least favorite moment was left off the list. "How could commuting Scooter Libby's sentence not even make the top 10??!!" I can hear some of you shrieking already. Well, I'll tell you. Essentially, I tried to rate each Bush disaster by two main criteria: its body count and its damage to the country's reputation. So while Bush's awkward groping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be personally humiliating to everyone, it doesn't have the same heft as, say, the Iraq War.

But for those of you who insist on seeing your least favorite moment get its due, here is list of every honorable mention I could come up with: warrantless wiretapping; Valerie Plame; Scooter Libby's sentence commuted; Bush believes Rafael Palmeiro is innocent; soldiers face neglect at Walter Reed; signing statements; the Kyoto treaty ripped up; loyalty oaths; the fake turkey; a staged teleconference with troops, staged FEMA press conference, extraordinary rendition, support for junk science; endorsement of neo-creationist "intelligent design"; inaction against global warming; record oil prices; record budget deficits; record trade deficits; record number of Americans without health insurance; two recessions; no-bid contracts; bin Laden still at large; the Federal Marriage Amendment; stem cell research vetoed; waterboarding ban vetoed; "Last throes"; "Old Europe"; "It's hard work"; "Bring it on"; "Yo, Blair!"; "I'm the decider"; "I'm the commander guy"; "I'm a war president"; "This is the guy who tried to kill my dad"; "So?"; "Let the Eagle Soar"; John Bolton; Kenny Boy; Harriet Miers; John Roberts; Sam Alito; Blair talks Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera; Cheney shoots some guy in the face; the Military Commissions Act; Jose Padilla arrested and held without charge or access to counsel; endless tax cuts for the rich; let's waste a shitload of money by sending people to Mars and let's hire some Heritage Foundation staffers to rebuild Iraq.

And with that, let's go onto our 10 worst moments.

10: Bush Gets Re-elected


In a way, Bush's re-election was even more depressing than the shady shenanigans the GOP used to get him elected in 2000. See, back then Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" who promised to be a "uniter, not a divider" who would run a center-right administration like his father did. By 2004, the myth of Bush the Uniter had been demolished by his exploiting the 9/11 terror attacks for political gain, by dropping poison pills into bills to make Democrats vote against their own proposals, and by supporting needless and divisive initiatives such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. On top of this, the Bush re-election crew ran one of the nastiest and most negative campaigns in recent memory. The low point in the whole affair came when administration allies and surrogates took to the airwaves to falsely accuse Democratic candidate John Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam, even claiming in one instance that he intentionally shot himself to get out of the war.

The reason for this historically negative campaign was obvious: As Paul Krugman deftly observed at the time, Bush had "no positive achievements to run on." But this didn't stop more than 59 million Americans from voting to give Bush yet another four years to build on his already-impressive resume of negative achievements.

9: Alberto Gonzales' Congressional Testimony


One of the Bush administration's favorite pastimes over the past eight years has been gleefully urinating in the faces of the other two branches of government. This tendency is best exemplified by Ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions under oath about whether a group of eight federal prosecutors had been fired for partisan reasons. Essentially, all of the attorneys in question had exemplary performance records but were targeted because they did not prosecute several so-called "voter fraud" cases to then-presidential adviser Karl Rove's satisfaction. When the Senate Judiciary Committee called then-Deputy AG Paul McNulty to testify about the firings, he claimed that all of them had been dismissed due to "performance-related issues." About a month later, Gonzales penned an editorial for USA Today reiterating McNulty's claim that the attorneys were fired for performance reasons and called the entire controversy an "overblown personnel matter."

After it emerged that six of the fired attorneys had actually been given positive job evaluations, Gonzales rushed up to Capitol Hill to perform damage control. He said he "regretted" saying that the fired attorneys had lost his confidence, and then went on to say that he had no idea why the attorneys had been targeted for dismissal. Additionally, Gonzales said there was nothing at all improper about the firings, despite the fact that he admitted that he had "limited involvement" in the ordeal. Gonzales also responded to questions by answering "I don't recall" a total of 64 times.

Although several GOP senators called on Gonzales to resign in the wake of his testimony, Bush said Gonzales' performance had "increased my confidence in his ability to do the job" and that he would stay on as attorney general.

And the fun didn't stop there. When the Senate Judiciary Committee hauled Gonzales back to testify about his frantic hospital visit to get a fresh-from-surgery John Ashcroft to approve Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, it resulted in the sort of clown show that would have put Barnum and Bailey to shame. The lowlight came during a classic debate between Gonzo and Arlen Specter over whether Ashcroft could have effectively performed his duties as attorney general while he was under heavy sedation. After Gonzales finally stepped down in August 2007, Bush stamped his feet and cried that Gonzo had had "his good name dragged through the mud."

8: North Korea Conducts a Nuclear Test

In his 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush stated forthrightly that "the United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." And to show how serious he was, Bush decided to invade Iraq, a country whose vast stockpile contained precisely zero weapons of mass destruction.

But while Bush was busy freedomizing the Iraqis, North Korea -- a country best known for being home of the world's worst government -- steadily built up its nuclear capabilities and eventually conducted a nuclear test in October 2006.


While there is a great deal of dispute over whether the North Korean test was actually a successful test, it seemed clear that Bush's strategic doctrine of ignoring our enemies until they meet every one of his demands has failed somewhat spectacularly. Naturally, Condi Rice declared that the test was actually a significant win for Bush administration policy, thus proving once again that down isn't just up for the Bush administration, but sometimes sideways as well.

7: Colin Powell's Bogus WMD Presentation at the U.N.


For those of you who are too young to remember, there was a time when Colin Powell was an internationally respected diplomat and military leader who was seen as the sort of rare Republican straight-shooter who also had a fine sense for global sensibilities. Indeed, at the time of Powell's appointment to the State Department, the BBC described him as Bush's "trump card" and as "a national hero whose charismatic image bridges America's racial divide." But little did anyone know that Powell's public image as a renowned warrior-scholar would come crashing down to Earth less than four years after his appointment.

In February 2003, Powell gave a presentation before the U.N. Security Council that was instrumental in convincing both the American public and large swaths of the international community that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that posed an immediate threat to global security. During his speech, Powell told scary tales of mobile biological weapons labs, chemical weapons stockpiles and aluminum tubes that could be used in a nuclear weapons program. All of these claims turned out not only to be wrong, but based on sourcing that even Powell acknowledged was "deliberately misleading" in some cases.

And what's more, Powell knew how shaky a lot of the intelligence was before he made his infamous presentation to the United Nations. As Bob Woodward reported in his book Plan of Attack, Powell had deep doubts about an intercept between two senior members of the Iraqi Republican Guard that vaguely sortakindamaybe might have mentioned something along the lines of using vehicles for bioweapons labs. Yet despite reservations about the intel, Woodward reports that Powell "decided to use it" for his U.N. presentation anyway. Ditto for an "inferential" report on Iraqi Scud missiles that Powell acknowledged had not been seen by anyone.

Years after feeding bogus intel to the Security Council, Powell said his performance was a "painful" "blot" on his record. Well la-tee-da. I'm sure that's a fine comfort to the hundreds of thousands of people who died needlessly as a result of Powell's Security Council boo-boo.

6: The Terri Schiavo Affair


In what will no doubt go down in history as one of the craziest things our federal government has ever done, the U.S. House and Senate both passed an emergency law to save the life of a woman who had been near-brain dead for more than a decade. The case of Terri Schiavo, who collapsed in her home and who later lost oxygen to her brain after her doctors misdiagnosed the cause of her collapse, was undoubtedly tragic for everyone involved; it was also undoubtedly none of the federal government's business.

After numerous state courts had sided with then-husband and guardian Michael Schiavo and ruled that Terri's condition was irreversible and that her feeding tube could be removed to end her life, the Christian Right launched into an epic freak-out the likes of which America has not seen since 17th Century Salem. After much Tasmanian devil-style screeching and hollering from the GOP base, the Republican Congress passed a bill transferring jurisdiction of the Schiavo case to federal court. Bush, who seemingly never misses an opportunity to take a naked ride on the crazy train, interrupted one of his frequent Texas vacations to sign the damn thing into law.

Ah, if only he'd been this swift and alert when Hurricane Katrina hit (see Moment #4).

While there were several moments of sheer, unbridled lunacy throughout (Pat Buchanan calls Michael Schiavo and his supporters Nazis! Tom DeLay issues threats against judges who don't rule how he wants them to! Peggy Noonan calls Michael Schiavo supporters part of "culture of death!"), the craziest by far was then-Senator Bill Frist's declaration that Terri had been misdiagnosed after he spent an hour watching a video of her in his office.

5: Bush and Condi's Excellent Gaza Adventure

The Bush administration can be described as a slapstick comedy with an unusually high body count: Picture the Three Stooges and the Keystone Cops duking it out with cruise missiles.

There is no better example of this than Bush and the State Department's wild adventures in the Gaza Strip in 2006. As Vanity Fair's David Rose reported earlier this year, the trouble began when Bush started stamping his feet and throwing a hissy fit about having elections in the Palestinian territories. Essentially, Bush's desire to be seen as a "freedom president" meant forcing various swarthy third-worlders to vote in elections that would presumably result in U.S.-friendly regimes around the world. After Hamas predictably defeated Fatah in the elections, Bush decided he didn't like democracy in the Middle East so much after all, and he had Condi Rice tell Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas that "America expected him to dissolve the Haniyeh government as soon as possible and hold fresh elections." Apparently, Condi believed that having an American-backed leader dissolve a democratically elected government would warm the Palestinians' hearts to American aims. Long story short: The U.S. government decides to bolster Fatah by sending them a bunch of arms. Word of these shipments leaks to a Jordanian newspaper. All hell breaks loose; Hamas defeats Fatah and proceeds to use the American-supplied arms it confiscated from Fatah against Israel. The entire ordeal was an amazing illustration of the administration's complete inability to anticipate entirely predictable outcomes. Or as Khalid Jaberi, a commander with Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, put it: "Since the takeover, we've been trying to enter the brains of Bush and Rice, to figure out their mentality. We can only conclude that having Hamas in control serves their overall strategy, because their policy was so crazy otherwise."

Epic, epic fail.

4: "Brownie, You're Doing a Heckuva Job"


Yes, we're getting into Bush's real crowning achievements here. The Think Progress blog has done an admirable job of chronicling the entire affair, so I'm just going to summarize the lowlights from its timeline:

Aug. 29: Katrina makes landfall, then-FEMA chief Michael "Brownie" Brown warns Bush that the levees could overflow, Bush gives John McCain a cake. Brown, a Bush hack who had previously worked as "the chief rules enforcer of the Arabian Horse Association," also preemptively asks Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, if he "can quit now." He also declares himself "a fashion god."

Aug. 30: Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff learns that the New Orleans levees had failed, looters run rampant in New Orleans, Bush plays guitar, then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan says that Bush will return to his Texas ranch for one more night of vacation before returning to Washington.

Aug. 31: Federal relief workers try to evacuate New Orleans residents in what Chertoff describes as "conditions of urban warfare."

Sept. 1: Bush says, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Brownie says he's received "no reports of unrest."

Sept. 2: Karl Rove begins to enact his strategy of blaming local officials for the Katrina disaster, Bush tells Brownie that he's doing "a heckuva job" and also says he's "satisfied with the response" of the federal government but "not satisfied with all the results," and pledges to rebuild Trent Lott's house.

Sept. 4: Chertoff says that "government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur."

And so on. While watching Katrina unfold live on my television, I suddenly had the urge to sell all my belongings, purchase several firearms, move out to a remote cabin in Montana and wait for society to fall apart. Because hey: If the entire world was going to completely collapse around me, I might as well have a wise-cracking psychic dog to keep me company.

3: Abu Ghraib


In its May 10, 2004, issue, the New Yorker magazine published an explosive report by renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh detailing the systematic torture of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Administration apologists used two distinctly different strategies to push back against the inevitable bad press that ensued: One was to condemn the guilty parties but refer to them merely as "a few bad apples" who weren't reflective of American policy; the other was to dismiss the entire scandal as "an out-of-control fraternity prank."

But it turned out, of course, that the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib weren't merely the work of a few rogue soldiers. Indeed, it turns out that the tactics employed in the infamous Iraqi dungeon were first taken out for a test spin at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And what tactics did those include, you ask? Why, sleep deprivation, stress positions, sexual humiliation and a technique called waterboarding that is meant to simulate the experience of drowning. And where did they get the idea to use these techniques? Why, from senior Bush administration officials, of course! With the full approval of Bush himself! As ABC News reported earlier this year, "the high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed."

Amazingly, the Bush administration tried to justify its decisions by claiming that waterboarding was perfectly legal and did not constitute torture. Despite the fact that, you know, it was deemed illegal 40 years ago by U.S. generals in Vietnam.

This particular scandal was so bad that even the John Birch Society (!!!) concluded that the administration and its flunkies were war criminals.

2: 9/11


The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the most terrifying and traumatic moments in American history. Thousands of people perished that day, all due to an evil act carried out by a group of religious fanatics who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Penn. But while the loss of life on that day was indeed a major tragedy for all Americans, what happened afterward was in many ways more disturbing: In essence, the politicization of 9/11 caused us to lose our collective minds for a long period of time.

The first shot was fired by Karl Rove in a January 2002 address to the Republican National Committee in which he implored the GOP to "go to the country on (the War on Terror) because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." And sure enough, by the time the midterm elections rolled around, Bush and his GOP minions were milking 9/11 to get as many votes as they could. When Senate Democrats tried to extend union rights for workers in the newly created Department of Homeland Security, for instance, Bush issued a pissy veto threat, and then-spokesman Ari Fleischer described the Dems' proposal as "a step backward, not forward, in protecting the country."

And that's just a mild example. Here are some other choice GOP attacks that accused Democrats of helping al Qaeda win by not kissing Bush's ass with the sufficient level of enthusiasm:

"America sits and wonders why it is that al Qaeda, this ragtag bunch of terrorists scattered all over the globe, can reorganize themselves. I think the difference is that al Qaeda doesn't have a Senate. Al Qaeda doesn't have a Senator Daschle." -- Dick Armey

"As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that's not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush's vital homeland security efforts 11 times." -- An attack ad targeting then-U.S. Senator Max Cleland. Cleland is a vet who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.

"Al Qaeda terrorists. Saddam Hussein. Enemies of America. Working to obtain nuclear weapons. Now more than ever our nation must have a missile defense system to shoot down missiles fired at America. Yet Tim Johnson has voted against a missile defense system 29 different times." -- An attack ad targeting Sen. Tim Johnson. This one was particularly rich, since a missile defense shield would have done precisely nothing to stop the 9/11 attacks.

"How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field?" -- Trent Lott, who freaked out because then-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle had the gall to suggest that we'd have to capture Osama bin Laden in order to consider the war on terror successful.

"(Daschle's) divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country." -- Virginia Representative Tom Davis, also attacking Daschle's remarks. Who knew that demanding the capture of our enemies was tantamount to treason?

And so on. The Republicans' "The Democrats Want to Help al Qaeda Kill You" gambit worked for two consecutive elections before finally running out of gas in 2006. But even so, the ability of one political party to garner votes simply by yelling about treason incessantly is incredibly depressing.

Pass me that bucket of Freedom Fries, will you?

1: "Mission Accomplished"


A lot has been written about Bush's aircraft carrier stunt over the past few years, and with good reason. After all, no other incident better illustrates how Bush's presidency was built entirely on hubristic arrogance, shameless propaganda and a destructive disregard for reality. In what Noam Chomsky correctly called "the opening of the year 2004 election campaign," George W. Bush delivered a so-called "victory speech" for the Iraq War after landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard an S-3B Viking jet dressed in full flyboy gear.

Bush's posturing as a war hero was, of course, laughable. During the Vietnam War, Bush used his family connections to obtain a gentleman draft dodger's assignment flying planes in Alabama for the Air National Guard -- a cushy assignment that he didn't even do very well. But no matter! As long as he gave off an aura of steely resolve, and as long as he wore a ridiculous outfit to emphasize his "manly characteristic," our ever-watchful pundit corps endlessly praised him as the gin-you-wine article.

A sample of the atrocities, painstakingly compiled by Media Matters:

"(T)hat's the president looking very much like a jet, you know, a high-flying jet star. A guy who is a jet pilot. Has been in the past when he was younger, obviously. What does that image mean to the American people, a guy who can actually get into a supersonic plane and actually fly in an unpressurized cabin like an actual jet pilot?" -- Chris Matthews

"A little bit of history and a lot of drama today when President Bush became the first commander in chief to make a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier. A one-time Fighter Dog himself in the Air National Guard, the president flew in the co-pilot seat with a trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln." -- Wolf Blitzer

"And two immutable truths about the president that the Democrats can't change: He's a youthful guy. He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit. He is a former pilot, so it's not a foreign art farm -- art form to him. Not all presidents could have pulled this scene off today." -- Brian Williams

And in the time since Bush performed this grotesque PR stunt, roughly 4,000 troops have been killed in action along with tens of thousands of Iraqis, with nary a WMD in sight to justify the carnage. Heck of a job, all around.

Original here

Analysis: U.S. military to patrol Internet

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Edito

The U.S. military is looking for a contractor to patrol cyberspace, watching for warning signs of forthcoming terrorist attacks or other hostile activity on the Web.

"If someone wants to blow us up, we want to know about it," Robert Hembrook, the deputy intelligence chief of the U.S. Army's Fifth Signal Command in Mannheim, Germany, told United Press International.

In a solicitation posted on the Web last week, the command said it was looking for a contractor to provide "Internet awareness services" to support "force protection" -- the term of art for the security of U.S. military installations and personnel.

"The purpose of the services will be to identify and assess stated and implied threat, antipathy, unrest and other contextual data relating to selected Internet domains," says the solicitation.

Hembrook was tight-lipped about the proposal. "The more we talk about it, the less effective it will be," he said. "If we didn't have to put it out in public (to make the contract award), we wouldn't have."

He would not comment on the kinds of Internet sites the contractor would be directed to look at but acknowledged it would "not (be) far off" to assume violent Islamic extremists would be at the top of the list.

The solicitation says the successful contractor will "analyze various Web pages, chat rooms, blogs and other Internet domains to aggregate and assess data of interest," adding, "The contractor will prioritize foreign-language domains that relate to specific areas of concern … (and) will also identify new Internet domains" that might relate to "specific local requirements" of the command.

Officials were keen to stress the contract covered only information that could be found by anyone with a computer and Internet connection.

"We're not interested in being Big Brother," said LeAnne MacAllister, chief spokeswoman for the command, which runs communications in Europe for the U.S. Army and the military's joint commands there.

"I would not characterize it as monitoring," added Hembrook. "This is a research tool gathering information that is already in the public domain."

Experts say Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaida use the Web for propaganda and fundraising purposes. Although the extent to which it is employed in operational planning is less clear, most agree that important information about targeting and tactics can be gleaned from extremists' public pronouncements.

Hembrook said the main purpose of the contract is to analyze "trends in information." The contractor will "help us find those needles in that haystack of information."

The solicitor says the contractor's team will include a "principal cyber investigator," a "locally specialized threat analyst" and a "foreign-speaking analyst with cyber investigative skills," as well as a 24/7 watch team.

The contractor will produce weekly written reports, containing "raw data and supporting analysis."

The addresses of the Web page sources will be "captioned under alias to preserve access," says the solicitation. Experts have noted in the past that publishing the addresses of some extremists' sites has led to them being attacked or moving. However, the contractor will "consider releasing specific (Web page addresses) on an as-needed basis … if explicit threat materials or imminent threat to personnel or facilities are discovered."

The contractor also will notify the command immediately "upon receipt of any and all stated or implied threats that contain timing and/or targeting information relating to personnel, facilities or activities, and to specifically designated areas of concern."

While declining to comment on the specific solicitation, Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that monitors Islamic extremist propaganda for clients including U.S. government agencies, said it was "common" for the military or other agencies to employ contractors "to support their own work on these issues."

"What most people don't get," he said, "is that (each agency or entity) has their own very specific requirements. … They are looking for one type of thing in particular."

Venzke explained that while an analyst for a big-city police department might be looking at extremist Web sites for certain kinds of information, their requirements would be different from those of intelligence analysts looking for evidence of trends in extremist targeting or ideology, which in turn would be different from those concerned -- like the Fifth Signal Command -- with force protection.

"There is some overlap," he said, "and you always have to work to minimize that, but generally, there are so many different … pieces you can look at … it's not duplication."

Original here

Hersh: Cheney 'Privately' Says He Prefers U.S to Strike Iran

Earlier this week, in an article called “Preparing the Battlefield,” the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported that late last year, “Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran.” On MSNBC today, Andrea Mitchell asked Hersh if the U.S. was “planning military action” against Iran or “planning to support Israeli military action?”

“Oh, you know, how the hell do I know,” replied Hersh. “What I can tell you is we’re loaded for bear. And we’ve been looking at it for three years.” He then said that Vice President Dick Cheney “privately” is against an Israeli attack because the U.S. will “be blamed anyway”:

HERSH: If Israel goes — I’ll tell you what Cheney’s says privately, and whether or not you, how I know this is, — what he says privately is, “we can’t let Israel go because, first of all, they don’t have the firepower, we do. We have much more firepower. And secondly, if they go, we’ll be blamed anyway.”

Asked by Mitchell if that meant Cheney wanted the U.S. involved, Hersh replied, “there you go.” Watch it:

Though Hersh says Cheney only conveys this view “privately,” he has made a similar argument at least once before in public. On Jan. 20, 2005, Cheney went on the “Imus in the Morning” show and discussed another Hersh article about U.S. war posture towards Iran.

“Why don’t we make Israel do it?” asked Imus. “We don’t want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it,” replied Cheney. But, he said, “Israel might do it without being asked,” leaving the world to clean up “the diplomatic mess afterwards”:

IMUS: Why don’t we make Israel do it?

CHENEY: Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.

Asked by Mitchell if it was “possible this would happen before the election,” Hersh said he didn’t think so, but that what he thinks “means nothing” because “this could happen tomorrow, the president could have a bad hair day and say, ‘to hell with it, let’s go.’”


MITCHELL: But are we planning, is the United States planning military action — or is the United States planning to support Israeli military action?

HERSH: Oh, you know, how the hell do I know? I mean this is for, this is above my pay grade. What I can tell you is we’re loaded for bear. And we’ve been looking at it for three years, we’ve got the submarines ready, we’ve got the cruise missiles there, they’re on destroyers. Everybody knows what to do. The pilots know where to bomb. The plan’s all been done for probably six months or not. If Israel goes — I’ll tell you what Cheney’s says privately, and whether or not you, how I know this is, — what he says privately is, “we can’t let Israel go because, first of all, they don’t have the firepower, we do. We have much more firepower. And secondly, if they go, we’ll be blamed anyway.”

MITCHELL: So you might as well have the U.S. backing it up, or at least taking out the Iranian anti-aircraft…

HERSH: There you go.

MITCHELL: …force, so that Israel could then have an unimpeded way in. For, we’re not talking about a ground invasion, we’re talking about targeted airstrikes against what they suspect to be nuclear facilities, whether or not their intelligence is good or not.

HERSH: Well, that’s always…

MITCHELL: That’s another issue.

HERSH: That’s another issue. And one of the things you have to do, you do have to, as you said, take out their radar and their missiles, and some of those are dug in underground, so you might have to send a special unit of the marines, some of our Delta Force boys, we’ve got a lot of very competent guys. And certainly they’ve gotten a lot more competent in the last seven years to go take them out physically, you know.

MITCHELL: Do you think it’s possible this would happen before the election?

HERSH: No. No, I don’t think so. But what I think means nothing because this could happen tomorrow, the president could have a bad hair day and say, “to hell with it, let’s go.”

MITCHELL: I think he would take it a little more seriously than that, but…Sy Hersh.

HERSH: No, you know what I mean, in general we just don’t know. He still wants diplomacy, I do believe that, but diplomacy for this president is these guys giving up everything in terms of enrichment before we discuss it and that’s a non-starter too.

MITCHELL: Sy Hersh, on the case, on Iran. Thank you very much.

HERSH: You’re welcome.

Original here

Tomgram: Rick Shenkman, American Stupidity

[Note to TomDispatch readers: With this post, TomDispatch is shutting down for a few days. Expect the next piece on July 7th or 8th. With the sunny days of summer ahead, what could be better -- consider this a last holiday hint -- than picking up a copy of this site's new book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire, before you head for… wherever it is you're heading, including the backyard. Tom]

The buck stops… well, where does it stop? And who popularized that phrase, anyway? Herbert Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry S. Truman, George Washington, or none of the above?

Wait, don't answer! The odds are -- as Rick Shenkman, award-winning investigative journalist and founder of the always provocative website History News Network, tells us in his new book Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter -- you'll be wrong. And when you realize the depths of the ignorance so many Americans take into the voting booth, you may indeed wonder, as Shenkman does to great effect in his new book, where indeed the buck stops.

So here we are heading toward another July 4th, that glorious day when American independence was declared and the Liberty Bell rang out to the world -- the first of which didn't happen on July 4th, the second of which was made up "out of whole cloth" in the nineteenth century in a book for children (but you knew that!). Think of today's post as a bit of counter-programming to our yearly summer celebration of history, a way to ponder what exactly, in the 8th year of the reign of our latest King George, any of us have to celebrate. Consider instead the state of our national brain, preview Shenkman's new book (which should set anyone's mind spinning), and, while you're at it, watch his recent interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show by clicking here. Tom

How Ignorant Are We?

The Voters Choose… but on the Basis of What?
By Rick Shenkman

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson

Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this: "Homer Simpson, Yes -- 1st Amendment 'Doh,' Survey Finds" (Associated Press 3/1/06).

"About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.

"The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms."

But what does it mean exactly to say that American voters are stupid? About this there is unfortunately no consensus. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who confessed not knowing how to define pornography, we are apt simply to throw up our hands in frustration and say: We know it when we see it. But unless we attempt a definition of some sort, we risk incoherence, dooming our investigation of stupidity from the outset. Stupidity cannot mean, as Humpty Dumpty would have it, whatever we say it means.

Five defining characteristics of stupidity, it seems to me, are readily apparent. First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who's in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country's long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.

American Ignorance

Taking up the first of our definitions of stupidity, how ignorant are we? Ask the political scientists and you will be told that there is damning, hard evidence pointing incontrovertibly to the conclusion that millions are embarrassingly ill-informed and that they do not care that they are. There is enough evidence that one could almost conclude -- though admittedly this is a stretch -- that we are living in an Age of Ignorance.

Surprised? My guess is most people would be. The general impression seems to be that we are living in an age in which people are particularly knowledgeable. Many students tell me that they are the most well-informed generation in history.

Why are we so deluded? The error can be traced to our mistaking unprecedented access to information with the actual consumption of it. Our access is indeed phenomenal. George Washington had to wait two weeks to discover that he had been elected president of the United States. That's how long it took for the news to travel from New York, where the Electoral College votes were counted, to reach him at home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Americans living in the interior regions had to wait even longer, some up to two months. Now we can watch developments as they occur halfway around the world in real time. It is little wonder then that students boast of their knowledge. Unlike their parents, who were forced to rely mainly on newspapers and the network news shows to find out what was happening in the world, they can flip on CNN and Fox or consult the Internet.

But in fact only a small percentage of people take advantage of the great new resources at hand. In 2005, the Pew Research Center surveyed the news habits of some 3,000 Americans age 18 and older. The researchers found that 59% on a regular basis get at least some news from local TV, 47% from national TV news shows, and just 23% from the Internet.

Anecdotal evidence suggested for years that Americans were not particularly well-informed. As foreign visitors long ago observed, Americans are vastly inferior in their knowledge of world geography compared with Europeans. (The old joke is that "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.") But it was never clear until the postwar period how ignorant Americans are. For it was only then that social scientists began measuring in a systematic manner what Americans actually know. The results were devastating.

The most comprehensive surveys, the National Election Studies (NES), were carried out by the University of Michigan beginning in the late 1940s. What these studies showed was that Americans fall into three categories with regard to their political knowledge. A tiny percentage know a lot about politics, up to 50%-60% know enough to answer very simple questions, and the rest know next to nothing.

Contrary to expectations, by many measures the surveys showed the level of ignorance remaining constant over time. In the 1990s, political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter concluded that there was statistically little difference between the knowledge of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today. (By some measures, Americans are dumber today than their parents of a generation ago.)

Some of the numbers are hard to fathom in a country in which for at least a century all children have been required by law to attend grade school or be home-schooled. Even if people do not closely follow the news, one would expect them to be able to answer basic civics questions, but only a small minority can.

In 1986, only 30% knew that Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991, Americans were asked how long the term of a United States senator is. Just 25% correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators, though the number has remained constant for the last half century (and is easy to remember). Encouragingly, today the number of Americans who can correctly identify and name the three branches of government is up to 40%.

Polls over the past three decades measuring Americans' knowledge of history show similarly dismal results. What happened in 1066? Just 10% know it is the date of the Norman Conquest. Who said the "world must be made safe for democracy"? Just 14% know it was Woodrow Wilson. Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49% know it was their own country. Who was America's greatest president? According to a Gallup poll in 2005, a majority answer that it was a president from the last half century: 20% said Reagan, 15% Bill Clinton, 12% John Kennedy, 5% George W. Bush. Only 14% picked Lincoln and only 5%, Washington.

And the worst president? For years Americans would include in the list Herbert Hoover. But no more. Most today do not know who Herbert Hoover was, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey in 2004. Just 43% could correctly identify him.

The only history questions a majority of Americans can answer correctly are the most basic ones. What happened at Pearl Harbor? A great majority know: 84%. What was the Holocaust? Nearly 70% know. (Thirty percent don't?) But it comes as something of a shock that, in 1983, just 81% knew who Lee Harvey Oswald was and that, in 1985, only 81% could identify Martin Luther King, Jr.

What Voters Don't Know

Who these poor souls were who didn't know who Martin Luther King was we cannot be sure. Research suggests that they were probably impoverished (the poor tend to know less on the whole about politics and history than others) or simply unschooled, categories which usually overlap. But even Americans in the middle class who attend college exhibit profound ignorance. A report in 2007 published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that on average 14,000 randomly selected college students at 50 schools around the country scored under 55 (out of 100) on a test that measured their knowledge of basic American civics. Less than half knew that Yorktown was the last battle of the American Revolution. Surprisingly, seniors often tested lower than freshmen. (The explanation was apparently that many students by their senior year had forgotten what they learned in high school.)

The optimists point to surveys indicating that about half the country can describe some differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. But if they do not know the difference between liberals and conservatives, as surveys indicate, how can they possibly say in any meaningful way how the parties differ? And if they do not know this, what else do they not know?

Plenty, it turns out. Even though they are awash in news, Americans generally do not seem to absorb what it is that they are reading and hearing and watching. Americans cannot even name the leaders of their own government. Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Fewer than half of Americans could tell you her name during the length of her entire tenure. William Rehnquist was chief justice of the Supreme Court. Just 40% of Americans ever knew his name (and only 30% could tell you that he was a conservative). Going into the First Gulf War, just 15% could identify Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense. In 2007, in the fifth year of the Iraq War, only 21% could name the secretary of defense, Robert Gates. Most Americans cannot name their own member of Congress or their senators.

If the problem were simply that Americans are bad at names, one would not have to worry too much. But they do not understand the mechanics of government either. Only 34% know that it is the Congress that declares war (which may explain why they are not alarmed when presidents take us into wars without explicit declarations of war from the legislature). Only 35% know that Congress can override a presidential veto. Some 49% think the president can suspend the Constitution. Some 60% believe that he can appoint judges to the federal courts without the approval of the Senate. Some 45% believe that revolutionary speech is punishable under the Constitution.

On the basis of their comprehensive approach, Delli Carpini and Keeter concluded that only 5% of Americans could correctly answer three-fourths of the questions asked about economics, only 11% of the questions about domestic issues, 14% of the questions about foreign affairs, and 10% of the questions about geography. The highest score? More Americans knew the correct answers to history questions than any other (which will come as a surprise to many history teachers). Still, only 25% knew the correct answers to three-quarters of the history questions, which were rudimentary.

In 2003, the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad investigated Americans' knowledge of world affairs. The task force concluded: "America's ignorance of the outside world" is so great as to constitute a threat to national security.

Young and Ignorant -- and Voting

At least, you may think to yourself, we are not getting any dumber. But by some measures we are. Young people by many measures know less today than young people forty years ago. And their news habits are worse. Newspaper reading went out in the sixties along with the Hula Hoop. Just 20% of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 read a daily paper. And that isn't saying much. There's no way of knowing what part of the paper they're reading. It is likelier to encompass the comics and a quick glance at the front page than dense stories about Somalia or the budget.

They aren't watching the cable news shows either. The average age of CNN's audience is sixty. And they surely are not watching the network news shows, which attract mainly the Depends generation. Nor are they using the Internet in large numbers to surf for news. Only 11% say that they regularly click on news web pages. (Yes, many young people watch Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. A survey in 2007 by the Pew Research Center found that 54% of the viewers of The Daily Show score in the "high knowledge" news category -- about the same as the viewers of the O'Reilly Factor on Fox News.)

Compared with Americans generally -- and this isn't saying much, given their low level of interest in the news -- young people are the least informed of any age cohort save possibly for those confined to nursing homes. In fact, the young are so indifferent to newspapers that they single-handedly are responsible for the dismally low newspaper readership rates that are bandied about.

In earlier generations -- in the 1950s, for example -- young people read newspapers and digested the news at rates similar to those of the general population. Nothing indicates that the current generation of young people will suddenly begin following the news when they turn 35 or 40. Indeed, half a century of studies suggest that most people who do not pick up the news habit in their twenties probably never will.

Young people today find the news irrelevant. Bored by politics, students shun the rituals of civic life, voting in lower numbers than other Americans (though a small up-tick in civic participation showed up in recent surveys). U.S. Census data indicate that voters aged 18 to 24 turn out in low numbers. In 1972, when 18 year olds got the vote, 52% cast a ballot. In subsequent years, far fewer voted: in 1988, 40%; in 1992, 50%; in 1996, 35%; in 2000, 36%. In 2004, despite the most intense get-out-the-vote effort ever focused on young people, just 47% took the time to cast a ballot.

Since young people on the whole scarcely follow politics, one may want to consider whether we even want them to vote. Asked in 2000 to identify the presidential candidate who was the chief sponsor of Campaign Finance Reform -- Sen. John McCain -- just 4% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 could do so. As the primary season began in February, fewer than half in the same age group knew that George W. Bush was even a candidate. Only 12% knew that McCain was also a candidate even though he was said to be especially appealing to young people.

One news subject in recent history, 9/11, did attract the interest of the young. A poll by Pew at the end of 2001 found that 61% of adult Americans under age 30 said that they were following the story closely. But few found any other subjects in the news that year compelling. Anthrax attacks? Just 32% indicated it was important enough to follow. The economy? Again, just 32%. The capture of Kabul? Just 20%.

It would appear that young people today are doing very little reading of any kind. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts, consulting a vast array of surveys, including the United States Census, found that just 43% of young people ages 18 to 24 read literature. In 1982, the number was 60%. A majority do not read either newspapers, fiction, poetry, or drama. Save for the possibility that they are reading the Bible or works of non-fiction, for which solid statistics are unavailable, it would appear that this generation is less well read than any other since statistics began to be kept.

The studies demonstrating that young people know less today than young people a generation ago do not get much publicity. What one hears about are the pioneer steps the young are taking politically. Headlines from the 2004 presidential election featured numerous stories about young people who were following the campaign on blogs, then a new phenomenon. Other stories focused on the help young Deaniacs gave Howard Dean by arranging to raise funds through innovative Internet appeals. Still other stories reported that the Deaniacs were networking all over the country through the Internet website One did not hear that we have raised another Silent Generation. But have we not? The statistics about young people today are fairly clear: As a group they do not vote in large numbers, most do not read newspapers, and most do not follow the news. (Barack Obama has recently inspired greater participation, but at this stage it is too early to tell if the effect will be lasting.)

The Issues? Who knows?

Millions every year are now spent on the effort to answer the question: What do the voters want? The honest answer would be that often they themselves do not really know because they do not know enough to say. Few, however, admit this.

In the election of 2004, one of the hot issues was gay marriage. But gauging public opinion on the subject was difficult. Asked in one national poll whether they supported a constitutional amendment allowing only marriages between a man and a woman, a majority said yes. But three questions later a majority also agreed that "defining marriage was not an important enough issue to be worth changing the Constitution." The New York Times wryly summed up the results: Americans clearly favor amending the Constitution but not changing it.

Does it matter if people are ignorant? There are many subjects about which the ordinary voter need know nothing. The conscientious citizen has no obligation to plow through the federal budget, for example. One suspects there are not many politicians themselves who have bothered to do so. Nor do voters have an obligation to read the laws passed in their name. We do expect members of Congress to read the bills they are asked to vote on, but we know from experience that often they do not, having failed either to take the time to do so or having been denied the opportunity to do so by their leaders, who for one reason or another often rush bills through.

Reading the text of laws in any case is often unhelpful. The chairpersons in charge of drafting them often include provisions only a detective could untangle. The tax code is rife with clauses like this: The Congress hereby appropriates X dollars for the purchase of 500 widgets that measure 3 inches by 4 inches by 2 inches from any company incorporated on October 20, 1965 in Any City USA situated in block 10 of district 3.

Of course, only one company fits the description. Upon investigation it turns out to be owned by the chairperson's biggest contributor. That is more than any citizens acting on their own could possibly divine. It is not essential that the voter know every which way in which the tax code is manipulated to benefit special interests. All that is required is that the voter know that rigging of the tax code in favor of certain interests is probably common. The media are perfectly capable of communicating this message. Voters are perfectly capable of absorbing it. Armed with this knowledge, the voter knows to be wary of claims that the tax code treats one and all alike with fairness.

There are however innumerable subjects about which a general knowledge is insufficient. In these cases ignorance of the details is more than a minor problem. An appalling ignorance of Social Security, to take one example, has left Americans unable to see how their money has been spent, whether the system is viable, and what measures are needed to shore it up.

How many know that the system is running a surplus? And that this surplus -- some $150 billion a year -- is actually quite substantial, even by Washington standards? And how many know that the system has been in surplus since 1983?

Few, of course. Ignorance of the facts has led to a fundamentally dishonest debate about Social Security.

During all the years the surpluses were building, the Democrats in Congress pretended the money was theirs to be spent, as if it were the same as all the other tax dollars collected by the government. And spend it they did, whenever they had the chance, with no hint that they were perhaps disbursing funds that actually should be held in reserve for later use. (Social Security taxes had been expressly raised in 1983 in order to build up the system's funds when bankruptcy had loomed.) Not until the rest of the budget was in surplus (in 1999) did it suddenly occur to them that the money should be saved. And it appears that the only reason they felt compelled at this point to acknowledge that the money was needed for Social Security was because they wanted to blunt the Republicans' call for tax cuts. The Social Security surplus could not both be used to pay for the large tax cuts Republicans wanted and for the future retirement benefits of aging Boomers.

The Republicans have been equally unctuous. While they have claimed that they are terribly worried about Social Security, they have been busy irresponsibly spending the system's surplus on tax cuts, one cut after another. First Reagan used the surplus to hide the impact of his tax cuts and then George W. Bush used it to hide the impact of his cuts. Neither ever acknowledged that it was only the surplus in Social Security's accounts that made it even plausible for them to cut taxes.

Take those Bush tax cuts. Bush claimed the cuts were made possible by several years of past surpluses and the prospect of even more years of surpluses. But subtracting from the federal budget the overflow funds generated by Social Security, the government ran a surplus in just two years during the period the national debt was declining, 1999 and 2000.

In the other years when the government ran a surplus, 1998 and 2001, it was because of Social Security and only because of Social Security. That is, the putative surpluses of 1998 and 2001, which President Bush cited in defense of his tax cuts, were in reality pure fiction. Without Social Security the government would have been in debt those two years. And yet in 2001 President Bush told the country tax cuts were not only needed, they were affordable because of our splendid surplus.

Today, conservatives argue that the Social Security Trust Fund is a fiction. They are correct. The money was spent. They helped spend it.

To this debate about Social Security -- which, once one understands what has been happening, is actually quite absorbing -- the public has largely been an indifferent spectator. A surprising 2001 Pew study found that just 19% of Americans understand that the United States ever ran a surplus at all, however defined, in the 1990s or 2000`s. And only 50% of Americans, according to an Annenberg study in 2004, understand that President Bush favors privatizing Social Security. Polls indicate that people are scared that the system is going bust, no doubt thanks in part to Bush's gloom-and-doom prognostications. But they haven't the faintest idea what going bust means. And in fact, the system can be kept going without fundamental change simply by raising the cap on taxed income and pushing back the retirement age a few years.

How much ignorance can a country stand? There have to be terrible consequences when it reaches a certain level. But what level? And with what consequences, exactly? The answers to these questions are unknowable. But can we doubt that if we persist on the path we are on that we shall, one day, perhaps not too far into the distant future, find out the answers?

Rick Shenkman, Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, New York Times bestselling author, and associate professor of history at George Mason University, is the founder and editor of History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events. This essay is adapted from chapter two of his new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books, 2008). His observations about the 2008 election can be followed on his blog, "How Stupid?" His recent appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" can be viewed by clicking here.

Excerpted from Just How Stupid Are We?, by Rick Shenkman, by arrangement with Basic Books.

Copyright 2008 Rick Shenkman

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