Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cheney unbound

It was bound to come to this, eventually: a much maligned, willfully controversial former vice president clearly on the last legs of a checkered life, a man who’s long ago given up on getting right with God, deciding instead to get right with history. His history. His story. Never mind the facts; they never bothered him before.

Dick Cheney’s written a book, the smirking former veep’s attempt to rewrite the known knowns of history with more of the savage embroidery of the truth he was complicit in for eight years as vice president in the Bush II White House, a cross between Cardinal Richelieu, Machiavelli and Milo Minderbinder.

The book, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” just out from Simon & Schuster, has already flummoxed and enraged many in the nation’s capital for its bold and disloyal revisionism — something the author predicted when he said his revelations would “make heads explode all over Washington.”

Colin Powell, who as Secretary of State was accidentally complicit in the tragic exploding of thousands of innocent heads in Iraq and Afghanistan, took umbrage with Cheney’s off-the-cuff promo phrase on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“It’s the kind of headline you might see one of the supermarket tabloids wrote,” he said. “It’s not the headline I would have expected to come from a former vice president of the United States of America.”

Maybe Powell’s well-known sense of politesse kicked in right there while he talked to Bob Schieffer on CBS. With eight years of hindsight, time spent sparring and grappling with Cheney in the Bush White House, the general must have seen this coming. For many, many other Americans, this was exactly what they expected to come from this former vice president of the United States. And nothing more.

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Like any dutiful author working to justify his advancer, Cheney’s been making the rounds, thumping his book on CBS, on “Hannity” (on Fox), and in interviews with Jamie Gangel and Matt Lauer of NBC News.

The loftiest distortions of the book, and of the truth, begin with Sept. 11, 2001, when the worst attack on American soil gave Cheney and a Bush White House spoiling for a fight the pretext they needed to do what they’d already decided to do: invade Iraq.

Cheney told NBC: "If you look back at the proposition that we faced after 9/11 with respect to Saddam Hussein, we were concerned with the prospects of terrorists like the 9/11 crowd acquiring weapons of mass destruction. I think that's still the biggest threat we face. At the time, to go after Saddam Hussein and take him down, we eliminated a major source of proliferation.''

We’ve known that was a lie for almost seven years. That’s when Dana Priest and Walter Pincus of The Washongton Post reported that a report by Charles A. Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq and a Bush White House appointee, “contradicts nearly every prewar assertion made by top administration officials about Iraq.”

"We were almost all wrong" on Iraq, Duelfer told a Senate panel in October 2004.

“Duelfer's report is the first U.S. intelligence assessment to state flatly that Iraq had secretly destroyed its biological weapons stocks in the early 1990s,” The Post reported. “By 1995, though, and under U.N. pressure, it abandoned its efforts.”

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We might have seen this coming with the genesis of the phrase “axis of evil” — the first distillation of the Bush Doctrine, the principles formally lashed together in a National Security Council paper and published in September 2002 — a testament to unilateral and pre-emptive belligerence against any country even slightly considered a threat to the United States.

The Bush White House quietly embraced one policy — waterboarding of terrorist suspects — in the name of national security, and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

And Cheney’s endorsed the practice since at least October 2006. “It's a no-brainer for me,” he said on a conservative talk radio program from Fargo N.D.

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Less publicized in extracts from his memoir, and less spinnable, is Cheney the polluter profiteer.

In a report released in June 2010, the Center for American Progress found that the infrastructure of responsibility for the BP oil spill, the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe, can be laid at the feet of Cheney and the Bush White House, whose embrace of Big Oil and laissez-faire policies on offshore drilling ultimately made the Deepwater Horizon disaster pretty much inevitable.

According to the Center’s report, in 2001, Cheney (who resigned as CEO of oil-services giant Halliburton to become vice president) was appointed to head a task force defining how to execute the Bush doctrine on energy. “Oil companies — including BP, the National Mining Association, and the American Petroleum Institute — secretly met with Cheney and his staff as part of a task force to develop the country’s energy policy,” the report finds.

An energy bill passed by the House in 2002 offered Big Oil/Big Power $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives over 10 years — mission: to increase oil and gas exploration, develop new coal-burning technologies, and punch up nuclear energy.

A series of budget cuts for renewal energy programs over the next six years underscored just how well entrenched was the baseline pro-Big Oil philosophy really was. On July 14, 2008, President Bush officially lifted the 18-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and ... in the Gulf of Mexico.

The door was open for oil companies to seek federal approval to drill three miles off the coast of the United States, or farther out. One of those companies was BP. It started drilling at the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible oil rig 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in February of 2010.

You already know what happened next.

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Maybe the best thing about Cheney’s literary self-aggrandizement is its valedictory aspect, the fact of its summational finality. The publicized passages of the book that the media has soundbitten on are part of a work that will be, pending another such tome, Cheney’s last word on everything.

You could see it in Cheney’s face in the interview with Matt Lauer: the former vice president, once jowly and rotund, sits across from his interlocutor thinner, his cheeks hollow, his voice thinner and weaker — the physical attributes of a man hobbled by five heart attacks, a quadruple bypass and deep-vein thrombosis. This is a 70-year-old man who, thanks to one fairly recent medical procedure, is a walking emotional metaphor, a man literally without a pulse.

This is also a man fading from the stage but determined to get in one more hurrah, one last chance to speak for the record and clear his name, despite public approval ratings that headed steadily downward from almost the moment he took office in 2002.

“In My Life” won’t change the public’s perception of Dick Cheney — regardless of how many copies are snapped up in bulk by the Newsmax Web site, for use as freebie incentives to get people to buy subscriptions. To go by the excerpts already in circulation, Cheney’s tell-all book finally tells us what we already knew, what we already lived through, what he’s already told us: that he regrets nothing; that he was justified in his actions by unfolding events, regardless of his complicity in creating those events; that he was only a man following orders, when he wasn’t giving them. From a secret undisclosed location, of course.

“[P]reponderantly the histories have been written by the winners,” Alex Haley observed at the end of “Roots.” Cheney has shown us how easily history can be invented by the losers.

Image credits: Cheney: Gage Skidmore. Book cover: Simon & Schuster. Bush: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press. Deepwater Horizon explosion: U.S. Coast Guard photograph.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Al Sharpton’s new pulpit

If you stay in the casino long enough, you get your share of the winnings. Maybe in spite of yourself. That's one of the inescapable takeaways from the Monday launch of “PoliticsNation With Al Sharpton,” the new news and commentary program on MSNBC in the 6-7 p.m. hour, featuring the longtime activist and radio host offering his perspectives on the day's doings. Let the hating begin.

Sharpton's rise at MSNBC is part of what appears to be a reinvention underway at the Peacock's Fledgling Network. After years of doubling down on guessing at the prevailing political winds from Washington, the network has lately been stepping out on true faith and burnishing its progressive bona fides. The hiring of ardent lefties Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell as prime-time anchors and MSNBC's ongoing variations with the daytime lineup, suggest a network in flux — the better to be in play in the runup to a no-doubt tumultuous presidential election.

The 6 o'clock hour is perfect for Sharpton right now. Technically, 6 p.m. isn't prime-time, and that's a good thing. Count on the good folks at MSNBC to quietly polish and sharpen Sharpton's on-air demeanor. As it stands now, Sharpton's too willing to jump bad, to talk at people instead of to or with him, to conversationally get in someone's face in a way that doesn't work with the relative niceties of mainstream television. Never let it be said that Al Sharpton ever brought Roberts' Rules of Order to a rhetorical gunfight; anyone who watched him during the long battle over Tawana Brawley knows better than that.

It’s evident that Sharpton (who’s been a regular guest host for Ed Schultz since late June) still needs grooming. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly observed: “MSNBC is going down a wayward road in hiring Sharpton, because it makes the channel look desperate to throw on its screen someone who’s a familiar media face. ... The host sometimes seems ill-prepared by his producers: Last week, for example, Sharpton’s handling of the breaking-news coverage of Hurricane Irene was a fumbling mess. ...

“If he can ever become comfortable on-camera and expand his horizons, Sharpton may eventually bring to MSNBC the combination of intellect and passion that has made so many of his press conferences over the years little wonders of argument, controversy, hype, entertainment, and enlightenment. Whether he’ll ever reach that point on PoliticsNation remains to be seen. Or, depending on the ratings, not seen at all.”

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It's a long way from the Rev's adidas track-suit wearing days. As the head of the New York City-based National Action Network, Sharpton has for years navigated the free-fire zones of politics, culture and the media like nobody else. Sharpton, who began his life in the church as a Pentecostal minister at an early age, moved toward a more aggressive social activism in the mid 80’s, when New York City was its own free-fire zone for African Americans, frequently victimized by the city’s police department in tragic and sometimes criminal circumstances. Sharpton frequently represented the families involved in press conferences and interviews, appearing to stand on their behalf as a moral witness with a sense of the street.

The fiery storefront rhetoric that Sharpton all but trademarked had its potential for blowback. In 1987, Sharpton championed the case of Tawana Brawley, a teenager who claimed to have been raped by one Steven Pagones, an assistant district attorney in Dutchess County.

Sharpton took Brawley under his wing and engaged in a public campaign of what amounted to defamation of Pagones’ character. When Brawley was found by a grand jury to have lied about the whole thing, Sharpton was successfully sued for defamation by Pagones. Sharpton was hit with a $65,000 judgment, ultimately paid by his supporters.

Since then, to one degree or another, Sharpton’s been about the process of not so much rebuilding his image as refining it to suit the dictates of a new, immersive media age. MSNBC’s announcement confirms his success in doing exactly that.

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What makes this such an event in the world of 21st century electronic media is the fact of who and what Al Sharpton is besides Al Sharpton. This moment is bigger than he is. Never mind his outsize personality or his reputation for rhetorical flamethrowing. This matters because Sharpton is an African American who becomes the first black television personality named to be a regular commentator on a mainstream news channel, paid for his style and his brand and his opinions, weighing in on the matters of the day with a point of view.

Not a fill-in host, not a newsreader of the evening news, as someone whose function is necessarily more transcriptive than opinionated. Sharpton becomes one of the regular five-days-a-week voices in the commentary realm of the mediasphere — the first to assume that level of saturation equal to the rest of American electronic media. Roland Martin had a similar gig at CNN, on Saturdays, for about two months in 2009, filling in for a host on maternity leave. Juan Williams has a spot as a commentator at Fox News — with a three-year, $2 million deal, he’s the highest-paid substitute host on TV — but no show of his own, no consistent self-branded platform from which to espouse the conservative line from a black perspective.

Sharpton has the bully pulpit right now. Implicit in his promotion at MSNBC is the network’s acceptance of what makes Sharpton’s new job bigger than Sharpton: The opinions of black Americans on current national and global events are as important as those of anyone else.

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The big question is, what’s next at MSNBC and what’s next at the rest of the cable outlets?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya: The future begins

“Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia”
— Saif al-Qaddafi, February 2011

“You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”
— Victor Hugo

It all appeared to come together with such swiftness, we were astonished. The world expected a gotterdamerung moment from the rapacious tinpot cartoon, a last paroxysm of rage from the Bedouin bunker of the ruler of Libya. Instead, Muammar al-Gaddafi has apparently vanished, leaving his once-loyal forces to continue fighting in support of nothing more or less than a phantom.

On Sunday, the forces loyal to Gaddafi were slowly routed by the rebel forces loyal to the idea of Libya having a future, in an assault on Tripoli, the capital, that was relatively bloodless in the early going. The groundwork had apparently been laid by the dogged fighting of the rebels; the continual attacks by NATO warplanes on government forces; the deeper nationalistic loyalties of everyday Libyans; and, count on it, the impact of social media both in documenting the atrocities of the Gaddafi regime since March, and in communicating in real time the intelligence necessary to send Gaddafi packing.

At this writing, Gaddafi remains in hiding somewhere in Libya, presumably directing what’s left of his forces to go on fighting and dying on his behalf. Deep pockets of resistance are said to persist in the western part of the city. But the deal is clearly going down.

“This is not fortress Stalingrad,” former NATO commander Wesley Clark told CNN Sunday. “We are approaching the endgame of this battle.”

“The Gaddafi regime is coming to an end,” President Obama said at the White House, “and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people.”

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For Libyan Americans, the news of the pending change has been well received. Rep. Keith Ellison, distilling the sentiments of Libyan Americans in his Minnesota district, said they were “jubilant, they’re excited. They’re very confident that the progress is irreversible and Gaddafi is out of power,” Ellison told Keith Olbermann on “Countdown” on Monday.

“It’s a very historic moment for us all to finally see the final chapter,” said Hussein Elkhafaifi, a professor at the University of Washington who recently returned from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Elkhafaifi spoke on Monday to KING5, the Seattle NBC affiliate.

Fouad Ajami, the celebrated Middle East scholar and professor at Columbia University, was similarly upbeat. “The prospects for the Libyan people are promising,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN on Monday. “There can be no possibility that the regime could rise in Libya that would equal the tyranny and the brutality of this regime.”

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Now the debate about the future of Libya begins. “Countdown” reported, quoting other sources, that some major oil conglomerates, including BP and Total, are already salivating at the prospect of going back into business in the country with the 10th-largest stockpile of oil reserves in the world.

The more immediate concern, of course, is government. NATO nations including the United States, Germany and the UK have jointly recognized the National Transitional Council as the successor to the Gaddafi government, so there’s a governing framework — or more accurately the basis of a governing framework — that’s soon to be in place.

But Gaddafi’s absolute reign of 42 years has resulted in a country that’s been for generations more or less a total expression of his identity. His forthcoming absence from the scene opens the door to the textbook “power vacuum,” and the rise of any number of ambitious tribal leaders, some of them certainly emerging from the same dictatorship in the process of ending right now.

“This country has had no serious … political institutions to build a democracy on,” said Robert Baer, author and former CIA analyst, to CNN on Monday. “I think it’s gonna need a lot of help.”

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But for the 33 percent of the 6.6 million Libyan people who are under the age of 15, that may not matter. For them, such conventional fears, such logical geopolitical assumptions pale against the innocent, frightening joy of people encountering what amounts to a new world.

They’ve never known a Libya without Gaddafi: his posters and statuary, his cult of personality and the long shadow of his authority. The prospect of their country without his iron grip may be no less profound than a realignment of the planets.

For those millions of north Africa and the Middle East young enough to dare of a future, maybe that’s what’s happening right now, block by block, tweet by tweet, and not just in Libya: a shift in the center of gravity. “The collapse of the regime is a very important event for the whole Arab world,” Raghida Dergham, a journalist with Al Hayat told MSNBC on Sunday. “It will resonate [in] other places … and that will also leave its mark on over developments in different parts of the world be it Yemen [or] Syria, I think the leaders there are not sleeping tonight.”

Image credits: Crowd, Gaddafi: Image from Al Jazeera live stream.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Ames Straw Finger in the Wind

“It’s a fraud, but ... it’s a lovely fraud,” Michael Gartner told Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt on Saturday, referencing the Ames Straw Poll. And Gartner should know. The former editor of the Des Moines Register, and a general old/new media visionary who’s done this rodeo before, thus cut to the chase about the informal Republican popularity contest and debating match that since 1979 has been Iowa’s first hard look at the GOP’s presidential contenders.

How seriously to believe the numbers from this canvass of Republican diehards, of course, depends on how seriously you take the poll itself. To go by Gartner, the poll may be sound & fury signifying not much, but it’s still a beginning. For all its downhome state-fair fried-butter-on-a-shtick, the Ames poll is serious business. Besides its beauty-pageant aspect, the Ames poll also has a bit of musical chairs to it; winners use its results to go on, while losers lick their wounds and go home. To go by the results on Saturday, and the way in which another candidate changed the survey’s outcome without even being in Iowa, the poll could signify everything and nothing at the same time.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota shored up her bona fides of credibility among then faithful by winning the Ames poll, with about 29 percent of the vote. Bachmann was followed closely by libertarian darling Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with about 28 percent, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty with about 14 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Georgia businessman Herman Cain followed, then former Masachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Obama White House ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.

“This is the first step toward taking the White House in 2012,” Bachmann told the crowd. “And you have sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president. This is a wonderful down payment on taking the country back -- and it started in Iowa.”

Pawlenty issued a statement reported by CNN: "We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position. ... We are just beginning, and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."

But no. In an interview Sunday with ABC News’ Jake Tapper, Pawlenty pulled the plug on a campaign that never got off the respirator in the first place. “We needed to get some lift to continue and to have a pathway forward,” he said. “That didn’t happen, so I’m announcing this morning, on your show, that I’m going to be ending my campaign for president.”

There’s no published knowledge on this, but watch for the deeply quixotic campaign of Newt Gingrich to follow suit sometime by month’s end, Gingrich having been spared the ignoble distinction of being the first to fold his tent.

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The newest presidential aspirant, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, arrived in Iowa on Saturday, after the poll was finished, but the thunder he stole with his announcement earlier in the day in South Carolina helped him secure almost 4 percent of the straw poll vote without breaking a sweat.

Campaign observers got an early look at the contrasting styles of Perry and Bachmann at their separate appearances at the Black Hawk Republicans’ Lincoln Day Dinner. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin of Politico reported how Perry and Bachmann worked the same room at not far from the same time:

Perry arrived early, as did former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The Texas governor let a media throng grow and dissolve before working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely to a windy Abraham Lincoln impersonator, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible.

But Bachmann campaigned like a celebrity. And the event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners.

She camped out in her bus, parked on the street in front of a nearby Ramada Hotel, until it was time to take the stage. Even after a local official’s introduction, Bachmann was nowhere to be found. It was not until a second staffer assured her that the lighting had been changed and a second introduction piped over the loudspeakers that she entered the former dance hall here. By the time she made her big entrance to bright lights and blaring music, the crowd seemed puzzled.

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Almost as puzzling as the behavior itself. Bachmann, who has frequently made jest of Obama’s personal style and his use of the perks of the presidency, may have lapsed, diva-like, into embracing her own cult of personality. Having her picture on the cover of Newsweek days earlier undoubtedly had the effect of reinforcing her as a Star. You're forgiven if you feel a Norma Desmond moment coming on.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Perry and thrust

A man who once with some rhetorical gravity supported the idea of seceding from the United States now wants to run the United States.

James Richard “Rick” Perry, the 47th governor of Texas, announced this afternoon that he would seek the 2012 Republican nomination to bear his party’s tattered standard against President Obama in the election 451 days from now.

“It is time to get America working again,” he said at the Red State Conference in Charleston, S.C. “... The change we seek will never emanate out of Washington, D.C.”

“It is time for Americans to believe again – to believe that the promise of our future is far greater than even the best days of our past. It is time to believe again in the potential of private enterprise, set free from the shackles of an overbearing federal government. And it is time to truly restore our standing in the world and renew our faith in freedom as the best hope of peace in a world beset with strife.”

Big on the theatrical gesture — the thumbs-up sign, the relentless handshakes, the fist pumping, the animated pointing at supporters from the stage — Perry has overnight given a serious, and much-needed, jolt of populist optic energy to the GOP field’s baseline emotional power supply. A large and not unattractive man, whom the late great Molly Ivins once dubbed “Governor Goodhair,” Perry relishes the physicality of American retail politics. In appearances made in the runup to the Saturday announcement, Perry blew more air kisses than Sarkozy.

His stump speeches, with the governor invoking “Amen” in all the right places, point to a man unafraid either to acknowledge his humble beginnings as a son of sharecroppers from Paint Creek, or to wear his Christian heritage proudly; he’ll be a hit with rural voters and evangelicals in the South and, quite probably, with religious conservatives voting next year in the Iowa caucuses.

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Not that the governor can expect a free ride. Behind the buoyant public mein, there’s a biography. Behind the candidate seeking the highest office is the record of performance for the job he’s already got. For Perry, the facts may be troubling things.

Back in June, and no doubt anticipating a Perry run, Abby Rapaport of The New Republic, wrote a deep-in-the-weeds profile of the governor and his policies that’s likely to give supporters of Perry’s pro-business, pro-growth agenda considerable pause:

The Texas budget for the next two years is a mess of accounting tricks and gutted programs, thanks to an unprecedented budget shortfall. ... Operating at a structural deficit, the state has even begun to attack funding in the once-hallowed ground of education. And while Perry has spent a good bit of June on his non-campaign-campaign, state lawmakers from both parties are fighting tooth-and-nail to legislate around his dictums.

Although he campaigned in 2010 on the premise that, as he told the Associated Press, “Texas is better off than practically any state in the country,” Perry, along with the rest of the state, soon discovered that Texas’s budget gap—$27 billion short of what it would need to maintain its already lean services in the next biennium—was among the worst in the nation. Luckily, Texas did have a rainy day fund—over $9 billion saved up for “economic stabilization.”

Some lawmakers, including many Republicans in the state Senate, advocated using the fund to prevent or at least soften cuts to education and health care. But Perry, who had turned “preserving the rainy day fund” into an applause line, stood firm in refusing to use it to plug holes in the budget for 2012-13. As a result, the budget cuts were draconian—initial proposals cut almost 20 percent from public schools and proposed 30 percent cuts to Medicaid providers.

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Perry has been a reliable champion of oil and gas industries. He went so far in May 2010 as to propose that the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was “just an act of God that occurred.” “From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented,” Perry said to the Chamber of Commerce in Washington. He’s generally been an environmental obstructionist, opposing federal efforts to advance EPA greenhouse gas emissions regulations, and fighting White House moves to regulate offshore drilling after the BP disaster.

Perry shored up his conservative bona fides in ways that are bound to antagonize relations with his state’s 2 million Latino voters. Perry backed the state Department of Public Safety's program to request valid residency documents from driver's license applicants who are not American citizens, not likely to endear him to Latino voters across the demographic spectrum, in the primaries or the general, should he get that far.

The state Senate voted to pass the bill on a party line vote, 19 to 12, The Texas Tribune reported on June 15.

Senate Bill 1 became law in July. Police officers in Texas are now empowered to inquire about the immigration status of anyone arrested or legally detained.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wisconsin fights back

“It’s a great day for America!” Insomniacs and late-shifters know, of course, that native Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson bellows that every night on his “The Late Late Show With (His Name Here),”as a springboard to reciting the folly that is part of his adopted nation.

Any natives of this country, under siege like never before, might convincingly argue that every day this country gets itself out of bed in these times is a great day. But some are greater than others.

Today qualifies because this is the first day after the Wisconsin state Senate recall election, a vote that saw two Democratic challengers topple sitting Republicans state senators in largely Republican districts. In the hours since the election results, a lot’s been made about the Democrats falling short of the three seats needed to regain control of the state Senate, in order to stop or reverse the anti-union initiatives of Gov. Scott Walker.

Assessments that don’t look further than the immediate numbers miss the finer historical details of Wisconsin state politics, and they ignore the ways in which a populist revolt can channel its energies into the electoral machinery, winning in its ability to send a message to conservative extremists. A great day isn’t always precipitated by a victory.

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The good news came in a sweet one-two punch on Tuesday. In the 32nd District, Jennifer Shilling beat incumbent GOP state Sen. Dan Kapanke like a toy drum, 55 percent to 45 percent. More narrowly, in the 18th District, Jessica King defeated state Sen. Randy Hopper, 51 percent to 49 percent.

TPM quoted Mike Tate, the Wisconsin State Democratic Chairman, saying that the elections, despite falling short of turning over control of Democrats, “show how vulnerable the Republicans are going into 2012, and how vulnerable Gov. Walker is going into a potential recall himself.”

King, who prevailed in her district, made the same point in a post-victory interview with David Shuster on “Countdown.” “The 18th state Senate district does not have a history of electing Democrats, so what that means to me is that a lot of individuals who self-identify as Republicans or self-identify as independent agree with the Democratic base that the current [Walker] administration is overreaching.”

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John Nichols, the on-point reporter for The Nation who’s covered Wisconsin and the Imperial Walker from the beginning, told Ed Schultz of MSNBC that, despite failing to wrest control from the governor this time, there’s reasons to be upbeat. Quite possibly, he said, it may not be over even when it’s over.

Nichols alluded to the general repudiation of Walker, a climate of antipathy among mainstream Wisconsin voters that’s just bad on its face, regardless of the specifics of policy.

And Nichols mentioned the X factor, the man who could give Walker many sleepless nights in the months to come: Dale Schultz, the lone Republican state senator who voted to oppose the Walker “budget repair” bill (now state law) as well as other Walker initiatives.

Schultz’s renegade actions, his repeated willingness to bolt from the Republicans in his number, suggests that Sen. Schultz could be that worst Walker nightmare: someone who won’t drink the Kool-Aid tea, a moderate Republican willing to place his convictions, and his constituents, over the reflex of party affiliation.

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Then, of course, there’s the rapidly building momentum among voters for Walker to stand for his own recall. In a report the day before the election, Nichols gave MSNBC a pre-vote snapshot that was cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on optimistic. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he told Ed Schultz. “I’ve seen presidential-level intensity. Signs are everywhere, people with clipboards on the streets, the cars are driving around ...”

Much of this had to do with the election itself, of course, but the fever for a Walker recall has been growing steadily. It was something that Tanya Somander of Think Progress reported on Tuesday:

While Walker can tread the recall backlash until January of 2012, Wisconsinites are forcing him to face the music now.

Last week, Wisconsin kicked off its 10-day state fair. It’s traditional for the governor to herald the fair’s opening day. But when Walker took the stage Thursday, he was met with a hail of boos and protests signs. “This is the one place where all across the state where people can actually come together,” he tried to shout over the crowd. “At least most people can.” As he walked off stage, the crowd chanted “Recall Walker!”

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The fault for Democrats will be if they look at this as an anomaly, if they buy into the unusualness of these election results, instead of implanting the baseline belief, in themselves and their supporters, that what seems to be an outlier event can be more than a rarity. With the right message and the right messenger, victories such as those enjoyed by King and Shilling don’t have to be the exception that proves the rule.

For progressives and moderates, maybe that’s the most positive underlying fact in the Wisconsin election, a fact that’s exportable as the news of the outcome itself:

In the first major election of the post-Citizens United era, progressives and the Democratic base proved they can win, and win decisively, despite the inroads of big contributions from outsider Astroturf organizers and trust-fund magnates — and despite the ominous implications of the very Supreme Court decision that gave those deep-pocketed charlatans the power to make those contributions in the first place.

Money doesn’t always matter the most in American politics. Quiet as kept, there’s a little matter of Message that often carries the day. Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper would probably testify to that right now. Scott Walker may be next.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wisconsin national election

There’s been concern expressed in recent months about the unhappy prospect of the primary election season being so front-loaded with big money and the pursuit of leverage that, for all practical purposes, the 2012 presidential campaign may have started months ago. That may be true, but not for the reasons you might think.

Right now we’re less than six hours from the polls opening in the state of Wisconsin, opening to begin the biggest recall election in the nation’s history — an election borne of deep populist discontent, a rage really, against the imperialist diktats of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a man whose anti-union agenda has alienated hundreds of thousands of municipal workers and their families from their own state government, and in the process made a mockery of the state’s noble history of workers’ rights.

Front-loading the primary season pales in comparison to Tuesday’s vote in the Badger State, an election that may well be the blueprint, the template, for the ideological battles of the 2012 race.

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These are the stakes: Six Republican state senators are up for recall, for their role in supporting and voting for Walker’s “budget repair” bill, which sought to balance Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion deficit in part by stripping the rights of about 170,000 public-service employees to collective bargaining for wages and other benefits, limits pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation, and ends automatic collection of union dues by the state.

This was after a weeks-long impasse during which 14 Democratic state senators literally left town, laying low at a secret undisclosed location in Illinois, briefly stopping the bill’s progress with their absence until Walker enacted various forms of legal gymnastics to get the bill through the state Senate, and onto his desk for signature, without them. The state Supreme Court, in June, upheld the law.

Progressives in the state have for months targeted six GOP senators — Rob Cowles, Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke and Luther Olsen — for their role in the bill’s passage.

Democrats need to win three seats to change the balance of power in the State Senate, a body that since Walker took office in January has seen a power grab Boss Tweed would have been proud to call his own.

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Tuesday’s vote is the day of reckoning, or not. Turnout in the election is, as they say, “key.” The Republicans have brought out their traditional weaponry — huge buys in the major media markets, negative characterizations in the media and a fat direct-mail campaign, all of it bankrolled by (among others) outside interests including the Koch brothers’ trust fund, Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children and other right-wing funding sources.

But what makes this race so potentially pivotal is the degree to which the grassroots opposition to Imperial Gov. Walker has thrived in the face of deeply-funded conservative forces. This has been a movement long on energy, and a populist passion — all of it strong enough to make the pre-recall polls (with high margin-of-error numbers) all but worthless in projecting an outcome.

The state’s progressives aren’t bringing money to the table, they’re laying their hearts, and their principles, on the line. The fact that it’s neck and neck right now speaks volumes.

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In March, Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Time Magazine that despite the protests of tens of thousands on a daily basis at the statehouse in Madison, “[i]t was pretty clear that the protests, as massive as they got, weren’t going to change the governor's mind. Even though they didn't succeed in getting what they wanted, they mobilized a lot of people and made this a salient issue. A protest doesn't have to succeed in its immediate goal to have a long-term impact.”

Mayer may have been right then, but all that’s changed. If the immediate goal was to raise awareness and galvanize the emotions, it succeeded. Tuesday may see the needed step in actualizing that passion where it counts: in the voting booth.

This recall isn’t an everyday exercise. John Nichols, a crackerjack reporter for The Nation, offered a pre-vote snapshot that was cautiously optimistic for the recall forces, with a measured emphasis on optimistic. “It is absolutely incredible,” he told Keith Olbermann on Current TV tonight. “I’m seeing presidential-level intensity. Signs are everywhere, there’s people with clipboards on the streets, the cars are driving around ...”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Spike Lee: 25 years of the inside game

"I guess you could call me an instigator."
— Spike Lee, from a Vogue magazine interview

Spike Lee’s first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It” got its first maiden voyage at a screening in New York City in October 1985. People watched the film and its frank but riotous challenge of transmitted narratives on sex, race and macho stereotypes. They were rapt, mesmerized … but not so caught up in the dazzling technique they were witnessing, the cinematic voice just announcing itself, that they couldn’t laugh out loud when they recognized their era, their city, their people, themselves.

Lotta water under the American bridge since then. Four presidents, who knows how many wars foreign and domestic, a terrorist attack, change upon change.

And over the 25 years since “She’s” was officially released on Aug. 8, 1986, Shelton Jackson Lee has chronicled that change through an African American lens. In feature films, television and documentaries, Spike Lee has done what our best directors have always done: push our buttons, rip the envelope open, advance the language of film. With a weave of the literal and the symbolic, the realistic and the whimsical, Lee has carved out a distinctive, refreshingly multifaceted vision of the black national life.

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We knew he was something special right from the jump. “She’s Gotta Have It” leaped into the public consciousness with a mix of singular visual signatures, a jazzy, dazzlingly urban musical score (courtesy Lee’s father) and a freshness of character perspective that broke with the then-prevailing cinematic pathology vis-à-vis black people. There wasn’t a pimp or drug dealer in sight.

The film focused on Nola Darling, a free-spirited Brooklynite, and her relationship with three men — by turns friends, confidantes and lovers. Lee’s study of the shift in that relationship, from the tension as it moved from obsession to jealousy, from macho rivalry to sexual violence, signaled a frank new view on black female sexuality and the inner struggles of black American women to define satisfaction on their own terms.

Lee similarly explored deep intraracial tensions (“School Daze”) or the equally deep, painfully personal interracial kind (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever”); the role of the media in shaping perceptions of blacks (“Bamboozled”); historical events as feature and documentary (“Malcolm X,” “Summer of Sam,” “4 Little Girls,” “When the Levees Broke”); the complexities of modern female sexuality (“Girl 6”) and the possibilities, within the framework of Hollywood filmmaking, of sharp, crackling entertainment (“Clockers” and “Inside Man”).

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But Spike Lee the provocateur, the “instigator,” has never been far away. In 2002, Lee went on “Good Morning America” and called Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott a "card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan." He was accused of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League in the wake of controversial characterizations in his 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues” — assertions that Lee assertively denied.

In October 2005, after the listless, Keystone Kops response to Hurricane Katrina by FEMA and the federal government, Lee told CNN that the idea that the government turned a blind eye to New Orleans was “not too far-fetched. I don't put anything past the United States government. I don't find it too far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people out” of the beleaguered city.

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But even while speaking truth to power, Lee wasn’t above letting his passions for frankness take him a bridge too far. He’s been known to step in it.

In June 2008, Lee complained that Eastwood’s films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” dismissed the role of black soldiers in the pivotal battle of Iwo Jima. “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” Lee said at the Cannes Film Festival. “Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that.”

Eastwood rejected Lee’s criticism; he admitted to the Guardian UK newspaper that a small force of black soldiers did serve on Iwo Jima as a part of a supply company, “but they didn't raise the flag. The story is ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, ‘This guy's lost his mind.’ I mean, it's not accurate.”

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