Ari Berman

27 Percent of New York’s Registered Voters Won’t Be Able to Vote in the State’s Primary

In June 2013, North Carolina passed the most sweeping voting restrictions in the country, requiring strict voter ID, cutting early voting and eliminating same-day registration, pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, and out-of-precinct voting, among other political reforms. The state defended its cutbacks in court last summer by invoking, of all places, New York.

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16 States Face New Voting Restrictions in First Election in 50 Years Without Full Voting Rights Act

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which has been under attack ever since. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down crucial components of the act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, when it ruled that states with histories of voting-related racial discrimination no longer had to "pre-clear" changes to their voting laws with the federal government. Immediately following the Shelby ruling, several states passed laws that made it harder for people to vote. The 2016 race is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. "Sixteen states have new voting restrictions in place," notes Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation. His recent piece is "63,756 Reasons Racism is Still Alive in South Carolina." His book is titled "Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America."

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Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed

Congress can’t agree on much these days, but on February 11, the House unanimously passed a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal—the body’s highest honor—to the foot soldiers of the 1965 voting-rights movement in Selma, Alabama.

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Civil Rights Then & Now: Time to March on Washington Again

The following article first appeared on TheNation.com. For more great content from The Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

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The GOP's Voter Suppression Strategy

The following article first appeared on the Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

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How a Filthy Rich 196 People Will Buy Our Election

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How the GOP Is Resegregating the South

 The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters.

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How the Austerity Class Rules Washington

 The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters. 

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Students Who Exposed 30-Year-Old Wrongful Conviction Being Targeted By Chicago DA

There's a very important editorial in The Nation this week that I hope everyone will take the time to read. It's about the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney, who's been in prison for thirty-one years for a murder he did not commit. I'm posting the relevant portions below. 

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The Conservative Crack-Up Deepens

With the Republican Party experiencing a full-blown implosion, conservatives are grasping at straws in a desperate effort to bring down Barack Obama.

The latest fashionable right-wing conspiracy theory: Obama didn't write his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Bill Ayers did!

You can't make this stuff up -- or, if you're a writer for the fringe website the American Thinker (a major promulgator of numerous Obama smears) I suppose you can. One of its contributors, Jack Cashill, compared Obama's memoir with Ayers' Fugitive Days and concluded that only the former Weatherman could've authored Obama's book (even though, for starters, Obama got the contract for his book in 1990 and didn't meet Ayers until 1995, the year his memoir came out).

Normally I'd just ignore such bogus drivel, except that Cashill's smear was picked up by Andy McCarthy of National Review, which still enjoys (perhaps unfairly) a modicum of respectability.

"Did Obama Write Dreams from My Father ... Or Did Ayers?" asked McCarthy on Saturday. "I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia," McCarthy writes, and then goes on to do just that. (In case you've forgotten, some conservatives accused Bill Clinton of murdering his longtime friend, Vince Foster, in 1993.)

McCarthy's rant was too much for fellow National Review contributor Jonathan Adler, the director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western University, to handle. Wrote Adler:

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The Media Repeats Stream of Lies About Obama


He's a Muslim. He was sworn into office on the Koran. He doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance. His pastor is an anti-Semite. He's a tool of Louis Farrakhan. He's anti-Israel. His advisers are anti-Israel. He's friends with terrorists. The terrorists want him to win. He's the Antichrist.




By now you've probably seen at least some of these e-mails and articles about Barack Obama bouncing around the Internet. They distort Obama's religious faith, question his support for Israel, warp the identity and positions of his campaign advisers and defame his friends and allies from Chicago. The purpose of the smear is to paint him as an Arab-loving, Israel-hating, terrorist-coddling, radical black nationalist. That picture couldn't be further from the truth, but you'd be surprised how many people have fallen for it. The American Jewish community, one of the most important pillars of the Democratic Party and US politics, has been specifically targeted [see Eric Alterman's column in the March 24 issue, "(Some) Jews Against Obama"]. What started as a largely overlooked fringe attack has been thrust into the mainstream -- used as GOP talking points, pushed by the Clinton campaign, echoed by the likes of Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Falsehoods are repeated as fact, and bits of evidence become "elaborate constructions of malicious fantasy," as the Jewish Week, America's largest Jewish newspaper, editorialized.



What floods into one's inbox these days bears little or no relation to Obama's record. "Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago," he has said. Obama ran for the Senate promising to help reconstitute the black-Jewish civil rights coalition. His first foreign policy speech of the campaign was before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he pledged "clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel." He has occasionally angered pro-Israel hawks by urging direct negotiations with Iran and Syria, but Obama's foreign policy record is well within the Democratic Party mainstream. He's committed to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, supported Israel's incursion into Lebanon in 2006 and has criticized Hamas. During his campaign for the presidency, Obama has been defended by AIPAC, the neoconservative New York Sun and The New Republic's Marty Peretz, a noted Israel hawk. And yet no defense of Israel by Obama -- or of Obama by the pro-Israel establishment -- seems to be enough. "When one charge is disproved, another is leveled," says Rabbi Jack Moline, who leads a synagogue in Alexandria, Virginia.




It's nearly impossible to decipher where the smears originated [for a comprehensive account of how such campaigns are generated and spread in the age of the Internet and e-mail, see Christopher Hayes, "The New Right-Wing Smear Machine," November 12, 2007]. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency traced one e-mail back 200 people before it stopped with a filmmaker in Tel Aviv who didn't receive a return address. "No one knows if it's the Clintons, a rogue agent or a Rove agent," says Congressman Steve Cohen, a Jewish Obama backer who represents a largely black district in Memphis. Likely it's a combination of the three.






We may not know who started the smears, but we do know who's amplifying them. The "Obama is a Muslim" rumor began in the fringe conservative blogosphere. "Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim," blogger Debbie Schlussel wrote on December 18, 2006. Schlussel had a history of inflammatory rhetoric and baseless accusations. She said journalist Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in 2006, "hates America" and "hates Israel"; labeled George Soros a "fake Holocaust survivor"; and speculated that Pakistani terrorists were somehow to blame for last year's shootings at Virginia Tech. Yet her post on Obama gained traction; one month later, the Washington Times's Insight magazine alleged that Obama had attended "a so-called Madrassa" and was a secret Muslim.



The Christian right is also preoccupied with Obama's religious beliefs. "Is Obama a Muslim?" the Rev. Rob Schenck, a reform Jew who converted to Christianity and now calls himself a "missionary to Capitol Hill," asked in a recent videoblog. "He may be an apostate, he may be an infidel, he may be a bad Muslim, a very, very bad Muslim, he may be an unfaithful Muslim." Schenck's videoblog was circulated by the Christian Newswire and Cross Action News, a self-described "Drudge Report for Christians." Schenck later concluded that, although not a Muslim, Obama was also "not a 'Bible Christian'" and did not practice a "confident faith." A separate report posted on the Christian Newswire recently asked if Obama was "Wearing a What-Would-Satan-Do Bracelet." And a top figure in the group Christians United for Israel, Pastor Rod Parsley, a "spiritual guide" to John McCain, repeatedly referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" before campaigning with McCain in Ohio. (Thirteen percent of registered American voters now incorrectly believe that Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, up from 8 percent in December. Forty-four percent of respondents are unsure of his religion or decline to answer; only 37 percent know that he is a Christian.)





The Muslim rumor was followed by fictions about Obama's actual faith, Christianity. In February 2007, Erik Rush, a columnist for WorldNetDaily, a hub of right-wing yellow journalism, called Obama's Chicago church a "black supremacist" and "separatist" institution. Rush found a sympathetic audience at Fox News, where he was interviewed by Sean Hannity. Soon after, another blast of e-mails went out, calling Obama a racist: "Notice too, what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama's churchB-L-A-C-K!!!" Like the Muslim claim, it was a lie. But screeds about Obama's faith soon gave way to wide-ranging attacks against his campaign advisers, his positions on the Middle East and his associations in Chicago.




At the fulcrum of this effort is a little-known blogger from Northbrook, Illinois, named Ed Lasky, whose articles on AmericanThinker.com have done more than anything to give the smear campaign an air of respectability. Lasky co-founded AmericanThinker.com in 2003, modeling it after Powerline, a popular conservative blog. Before that, he had frequently written letters to newspapers defending Israel and criticizing the Palestinians. Though his background remains a mystery, Lasky didn't hide his neoconservative leanings. He wrote a blog post in 2004 titled "Why American Jews Must Vote for Bush," made three separate donations to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, contributed $1,000 to Tom DeLay and has given more than $50,000 to GOP candidates and causes since 2000. Lasky sits on the board of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, whose close affiliations with Christian-right operatives like Ralph Reed has made Eckstein a controversial figure in the Jewish community.



A lengthy article from January 16, "Barack Obama and Israel," put Lasky on the map. "One seemingly consistent theme running throughout Barack Obama's career is his comfort with aligning himself with people who are anti-Israel advocates," Lasky wrote. To reach that conclusion, Lasky laughably warped what it meant to be "pro-Israel," criticizing Obama for, among other things, opposing John Bolton as UN ambassador and hiring veteran foreign policy hands from the Clinton and Carter administrations. By Lasky's criteria, every Democrat in the Senate, and more than a few Republicans, would be considered "anti-Israel." "Lasky's piece is filled with half-truths, omission of 'inconvenient facts,' innuendo, deeply flawed logic, undocumented charges, hearsay, and guilt by distant association," wrote Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.





Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its propagandistic nature, Lasky's column and subsequent follow-ups circulated far and wide. Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post quoted Lasky at length in a January column, printing his false claims as fact, as did a separate column in the same paper by Marc Zell, a former law partner of Douglas Feith (a onetime top official in the Bush Defense Department) and a top ally of neocon darling and Iraq War proponent Ahmad Chalabi and co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel. More surprising, Lasky became a household name in the mainstream Jewish press, the talk of the town at synagogues -- even liberal ones -- and a useful ally for members of the Clinton campaign, who circulated his articles. Recently he's been interviewed by mainstream outlets like NPR and the New York Times, which have labeled Lasky a "critic" of Obama without explaining his neoconservative sympathies. "I wonder how a tendentiously argued anti-Obama piece is mass-emailed by so many Jews who should know better," blogged Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News.




Another key purveyor of the smear campaign is Aaron Klein, an Orthodox Jew who is Jerusalem correspondent for WorldNetDaily. WND is notoriously disreputable, a sort of National Enquirer for the right (typical headline: "Sleaze Charge: 'I Took Drugs, Had Homo Sex With Obama'"). Klein made a name for himself by getting terrorists to say nice things about Democrats and allying himself with extremist elements of the Israeli right, whom he frequently quotes as sources in his articles -- when he bothers to quote anyone at all. Klein originally called Hillary Clinton the "jihadist choice for president," but when Clinton stumbled, he turned his fire to Obama, attempting to expose his so-called "terrorist connections."




Klein penned two stories in late February wildly distorting Obama's links, from his days in Chicago, to pro-Palestinian activists like Rashid Khalidi, a respected professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University who previously taught at the University of Chicago (hardly a bastion of left-wing activism). Klein's story goes something like this: Obama sat on the board of a foundation in Chicago that gave a grant to the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), run by Khalidi's wife, which supposedly rejects Israel's existence; and Khalidi directed the PLO's Beirut press office and is a supporter "for Palestinian terror." (In fact, the AAAN focuses solely on social service work in Chicago and takes no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Khalidi says he was never employed by the PLO; he has been a harsh critic of Palestinian suicide bombings and a longtime supporter of a two-state solution, and he has never been an adviser to Obama. As for Obama's past statements, at least in Chicago, being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian is not a contradiction in terms.)




Once again, the facts mattered little, and Klein's stories gained an audience beyond the narrow confines of WND. Christian publicist Maria Sliwa sent Klein's articles to prominent reporters, the Tennessee GOP included his claims in a press release titled "Anti-Semites for Obama" and the Jewish Press, an Orthodox Brooklyn paper, reprinted his story about Khalidi. His latest article alleges that "terrorists worldwide would indeed be emboldened by an Obama election." As evidence, Klein quotes Ramadan Adassi, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank's Askar refugee camp, who says an Obama victory would be an "important success. He won popularity in spite of the Zionists and the conservatives." In previous stories, Klein has quoted Adassi praising Cindy Sheehan, Rosie O'Donnell and Sean Penn. For a suspected terrorist, Adassi follows pop culture and US politics remarkably closely.




Despite Klein's questionable sourcing and scandalous accusations, mainstream reporters now call the Obama campaign to ask about Klein's articles. He also reports for John Batchelor, a right-wing talk-radio host for KFI-AM in Los Angeles who has written a series of outlandish columns about Obama for the conservative magazine Human Events and repeatedly pushed the Obama smears on his radio show. According to an e-mail of Batchelor's obtained by The Nation, Batchelor says that information about Obama and Khalidi came via "oppo research."



Even if the false claims about Obama originally emanated from the neoconservative right, the Clinton campaign has eagerly pushed them. Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal has e-mailed damaging stories about Obama to reporters, including a recent article by Batchelor. Clinton fundraiser Annie Totah circulated a column by Ed Lasky before Super Tuesday, with the inscription "Please vote wisely in the Primaries." Clinton adviser Ann Lewis falsely referred to Zbigniew Brzezinski, a critic of AIPAC, as a chief adviser to Obama on a conference call with Jewish reporters. "I can tell you for a fact people from the Clinton campaign are calling reporters and asking them to pay attention to things involving Obama and Israel," says Shmuel Rosner, Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. The volume of e-mails about Obama in a given state tends to track the election calendar -- hardly a coincidence.





Large American Jewish organizations, like AIPAC and the Orthodox Union, have repeatedly defended Obama. Yet they've had little sway over reactionary elements in both the United States and Israel -- including Jewish hate groups -- who are eager to keep the smear campaign alive. The website Jews Against Obama, for instance, is run by the Jewish Task Force, which funnels money to the radical settler movement in Israel. (Curiously, John McCain's alliance with Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, a leading proponent of "end times" theology, and his recent endorsement by former Secretary of State James Baker have received far less scrutiny from pro-Israel pundits. It was Baker, after all, who reportedly told George H.W. Bush, "Fuck the Jews. They didn't vote for us anyway.")




Respected news outlets have stoked these smears, even as they attempt to debunk them. "Is Barack Obama a Muslim?" asked an editorial in the Forward. "Almost certainly not. Was he ever a Muslim? Almost certainly yes." After Obama criticized "a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel," Rosner of Ha'aretz accused Obama of "meddling in Israel's internal politics." The Washington Post noted Obama's "denials" of his Muslim faith, without ever stating that the rumor was untrue. Post columnist Richard Cohen crassly connected Obama, his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan, a line of guilt-by-association questioning that Tim Russert aggressively repeated in the last Obama-Clinton debate.






Among conservatives, Fox News has endlessly amplified such rumors. Karl Rove, a new hire by the network, recently speculated that Obama would withdraw funding for Israel. Sean Hannity has asked if Obama has a "race problem." Fox News radio host Tom Sullivan compared Obama to Hitler. "Fox News are on to him and all the arguments our 'smear' camping [sic] is making and for the most part it is running with them," right-wing blogger Ted Belman, of Israpundit, wrote in a recent e-mail.



The attacks on Obama reek of racism and Islamophobia but, as John Kerry learned in 2004, any Democrat should expect such treatment. "If Moses was the Democratic nominee, he'd still be the victim of this hate mail," says Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC. The right-wing smear machine grinds on, with the mainstream media and rival campaigns lending a helping hand.


AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

Dem Debate No Game-Changer

Based on the mega-hype surrounding tonight's Democratic debate in Cleveland, Hillary Clinton needed a soaring victory to resurrect her ailing candidacy. Barack Obama, after a slew of victories in February, just needed to play for a tie.


Both candidates held their own, but there was no defining moment, breakout line or critical game-changer. So, in that sense, Obama won. Clinton will need more than a debate performance between now and March 4 to change the nature of this race.


Tonight was the night when it became obvious just how long this contests has gone on. These candidates have been out on the road for over a year, preparing to run for even longer, and it shows. At the beginning of the debate, Clinton looked visibly irritated and frustrated, making a lame joke about the media's infatuation with Obama. "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," Clinton cracked. That went over about as well as the "Change you can Xerox" line.


The big loser of the night was undoubtedly Tim Russert, whose inane gotcha questioning of both candidates marked a new low for the veteran broadcaster. Debates, especially what could be the final one between Clinton and Obama, should not become stand-ins for Meet the Press. Most voters don't care that Louis Farrakhan endorsed Obama, or when Clinton releases her tax returns, or whether the candidates know the name of Vladmir Putin's hand-picked "successor" in Russia (for the record, his name's Dmitry Medvedev).



Voters would like to know about universal healthcare, but they don't want the candidates to spend sixteen minutes arguing about the intricacies of healthcare mandates. They care less about what a politician said about NAFTA over a decade ago than what they're going to do about current and future trade deals now. Most Democrats like both Clinton and Obama. It remains a mystery why it's so hard for members of the press to figure that out.


There were a few revealing moments. Clinton said she wished she could take back her vote for the war in Iraq. If she'd have bucked her political strategists and foreign policy advisers and voted against the Senate's resolution, she'd probably be the Democratic nominee right now. Obama said he was wrong to stand silent as the Senate provided life support to a vegetating Terri Schiavo.


Obama gives crisper answers than he did at the outset of this campaign. He's better at speaking in soundbites and slapping away smears. His answers about foreign policy proved that, despite what Senator Clinton has said about him, he's ready to take on John McCain and become Commander-In-Chief.


Clinton is a knowledgeable and able debater, but even in comfortable settings, she seems to be swimming against the tide. Her campaign has begun blaming the media for poisoning the minds of the millions of Democratic voters who have expressed a preference for Obama. But she entered the race as the presumptive nominee and retained the aura of "inevitability" for the better part of the campaign. So if Clinton ran as the frontrunner, why didn't her campaign expect to be treated as one?


These debates increasingly tell us less and less. Perhaps it's a good thing that tonight's may be the last one for quite some time.

Labor Rebels Against Clinton

For weeks the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, has been relentlessly criticizing Barack Obama's healthcare plan on behalf of their favored candidate, Hillary Clinton. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee has long been a controversial figure in the union movement because of his exceptionally close ties to the Clintons. But conventional wisdom said the union would boost Clinton, especially in Iowa.

Following the Iowa caucus, members of AFSCME's executive board had seen enough, taking the unprecedented step of rebuking McEntee's anti-Obama strategy in a letter to the union chief. "We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the negative campaign that AFSCME is conducting against Barack Obama," the letter states. "We do not believe that such a wholesale assault on one of the great friends of our union was ever contemplated when the International Executive Board (IEB) made its decision to endorse Hillary Clinton."

The letter continues:

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A Budget for Permanent War

Need proof that George W. Bush is not planning to withdraw US troops from Iraq on his watch? Just look at his latest budget.

The Bush Administration will ask Congress for $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan this year -- on top of the $70 billion already allocated -- and $145 billion for 2008. Why ask for the money if you're not planning to use it?

Administration officials, according to the Washington Post, "warned that even more money will probably will be needed." The Los Angeles Times says the military wants "even larger defense budgets."

Are you kidding me?

The costs of Iraq and Afghanistan aren't even included in the $481 billion the Pentagon demands for 2008, a 10 percent raise over this year. Total these figures up and Bush is asking for roughly $745 billion in defense spending, a higher number, when adjusted for inflation, than the entire cost of the Vietnam War.

Just pause and consider the size of that number. Three-quarters of a trillion dollars and Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban are regrouping in Afghanistan and the US military is stuck in a civil war in Iraq.

"We have the largest Pentagon budget since World War II, but we are losing to an opponent in Iraq that spends less over an entire year than what we spend in one day," says Winslow Wheeler, a longtime defense expert at the Center for Defense Information.

Four defense analysts at the Security Policy Working Group recently awarded the government low or failing grades on virtually every aspect of the budget -- use of nation's resources (D), affordability (D), realism (D) and transparency (F). On only one criteria, advertising, did they award at A+, "for the Pentagon managing to convince Congress that the world's largest defense budget is too small."

The question now is whether this Congress will take the bait?

Pumping the Oil Tycoons

It was a great quarter for the oil industry, but Wednesday was not a great day.

For the first time this year, top executives from ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell Oil were summoned to Capitol Hill for a little Q&A with Congress. Big Oil's soaring profits, at a time of record gas prices last month, meant sagging poll numbers for the Republican leadership -- a reality even Senate majority leader Bill Frist couldn't ignore when he hastily called for hearings shortly after ExxonMobil announced $9.9 billion in third-quarter profits, the largest take in US corporate history. Four companies are expected to collectively pocket $100 billion in profits this year.

Dozens of reporters, young activists wearing "ExposeExxon" T-shirts and industry lobbyists filled a spacious Senate room on Wednesday for a rare joint hearing by the Energy and Natural Resources and Commerce committees. They expected a showdown, a rarity given that this Congress hasn't been known to investigate much of anything, least of all oil companies.

After all, the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress have reliably provided favors large and small to Big Oil, paving the way to unprecedented prosperity. In the last year alone, they've blocked meaningful action on global warming and significant investment in renewable energy sources, sought to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, inserted $2.6 billion in tax breaks into the energy bill and cleared the way for new, regulation-lite oil refineries by holding open a five-minute floor vote in the House for forty-eight minutes. Big Oil responded in kind, donating $13.3 million to Republican Congressional candidates in the 2004 election cycle.

But the profits and the poll numbers have become too significant to ignore. Seventy-two percent of the public believe oil companies gouged gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to an ABC News poll. Four out of five Americans support a tax on windfall profits to benefit alternative energy sources, the Civil Society Institute recently found. "The polling numbers are so bad for Washington Republicans that there are only two groups less popular than they are right now," the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor recently told CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow, "Oil companies and mass murderers."

The oil execs started Wednesday's hearing with a note of defiance by refusing to testify under oath, possibly recalling the image of their predecessors holding their right hands in the air before a Congressional hearing in 1974.

Thirty-one years later, many of the same questions exist. "Are you rigging the price of oil?" asked Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici, who's accepted more than $500,000 from oil companies since 1989. "I think you owe the American people an explanation."

When the execs pointed to rising global demand, decreasing supply, worldwide speculators, disruptions from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and nettlesome domestic regulations, Domenici replied: "I'm not sure my constituents will be pleased with that answer."

In fact, the Big Five failed to take responsibility for much of anything. The situation today strangely parallels the Enron debacle; energy companies complained about excessive regulation when the real cause was a manipulation of supply. A lengthy question-and-answer session with senators bore out this inflexibility.

Should oil companies encourage automakers to raise fuel efficiency standards in light trucks and SUVs?

Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil: "I don't want to get into the political aspect of that."

Could oil companies voluntarily donate 10 percent of their profits toward heating assistance for low-income Americans, as suggested by Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley?

James Mulva, ConocoPhillips: "That's not a good precedent for the industry to fund."

Was a 24-cent increase in the price of gas over a 24-hour period following Hurricane Katrina unconscionably excessive?

Raymond: "We have nothing to say about the price at the pump…. I don't know if that data is accurate."

Had we not experienced Hurricane Katrina, would the profits be even higher?

Raymond: "That's a hard question to answer."

And so on. "I hope I can give you a bit of a reality check," a reliably agitated Barbara Boxer said, before displaying a chart illustrating how the execs' yearly bonus was 155 times greater than the average American's yearly salary. "Will you consider making a major personal and corporate contribution to help Americans get relief from high heating costs? I'd like a yes or no answer." Before anyone could respond, Commerce chairman Ted Stevens, an irascible 82-year-old ally of Big Oil, interrupted the exchange.

"This chart is really publicity," Stevens said.

Publicity or not, more than eight pieces of legislation stand before Congress targeting oil industry profits. Senators Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd want a 50 percent excise tax on the sale of oil priced above $40 a barrel, a variation on a theme recently endorsed by Senate Budget Committee chairman Judd Gregg. Members of both parties have called for a federal anti-price-gouging law, modeled after regulation already on the books in many states--an idea explored by state attorney generals and the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission in the day's afternoon panel.

Through a clever line of questioning, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden persuaded the execs to admit that little, if any, of the $2.6 billion tax incentives in the energy bill would actually benefit their companies. Wyden said on Thursday he will try to strip the tax breaks from the Senate's massive budget reconciliation bill. More so than high-profile hearings, measures such as these will indicate the resolve of the Congress.

Prelude to an Exit Strategy

"Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is." --Texas Governor George W. Bush, April 9, 1999, on the US intervention in Kosovo

Thirty months into the Iraq War, and nearly 2,000 American deaths later, Republican leaders in Congress have yet to hold hearings on how or when to bring US troops home. So dissenting Democrats, led by California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, crammed into a small room in a House office building Thursday to hold an unofficial hearing on an exit strategy for Iraq.

TV cameras rolled in the back, Congressional staffers lined the walls, media vied for two dozen available seats and roughly thirty lawmakers shuffled in and out to listen or ask questions between votes.

"I had hoped that today's discussion would take place under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee or the House International Relations Committee," Woolsey said at the outset. "But there has been very little appetite among the Congressional leadership for open discussion about how we might end the war in Iraq."

That goes for both the Republican and Democratic leadership, neither of which attended.

Woolsey modeled the day after unofficial hearings held by Representative John Conyers in June into the so-called Downing Street memos. The panel assembled included retired Gen. Joseph Hoar, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack, former Senator Max Cleland, Harvard University conflict-resolution specialist Antonia Chayes, Ken Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and Iraqi-American peace activist Anas Shallal.

"Success as defined by our civilian leadership three years ago is out of reach," testified General Hoar, who headed US Central Command from 1991 to 1994.

"This counterinsurgency campaign, this budding civil war, is all about politics, ideas and religion. It cannot be won by killing Iraqis. Were this possible, the over 25,000 Iraqis killed already might have been enough." Hoar called for a high-level international envoy to help straighten out the fragile Iraqi political process, a recommendation endorsed by many of the panelists.

The hearings came a day after an especially grisly moment in Iraq, where at least a dozen attacks killed more than 160 people in Baghdad, the deadliest strike in the capital since the US invasion in March 2003. Twenty more people died Thursday morning. "Iraq is not stable and it is not stabilizing," said Katzman.

The hearings also came in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, with significant numbers of the National Guard of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama deployed in Iraq. "It is time we looked after our own backyard," said Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "We cannot do this as long as we continue to make Iraq the fifty-first state."

Much of the testimony was grim, realistic and precise; a stark antidote to the Bush Administration pep rallies normally conducted by the House and Senate. There were calls for an international peace summit, negotiations with insurgents, greater inclusiveness for minority Sunnis and a need to set a clear end goal, followed by a drawdown of US troops. "It is quite necessary that the government make a declarative statement on why we're there, with respect to permanent bases and oil," said General Hoar.

Most of the questioning came from liberal Democrats who opposed the war and who now support bringing the troops home. In January, with twenty-four co-sponsors, Woolsey introduced a resolution advocating an immediate troop withdrawal. Four months later, she won a floor vote on a modest amendment asking Bush to develop a plan for the eventual exit of US forces. One hundred twenty-two Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent voted for the proposal, roughly the same number who voted against the original war resolution. Shortly thereafter, Republican Walter Jones and Democrat Neil Abercrombie introduced legislation calling on the Administration to begin pulling out troops no later than October 1, 2006. In the Senate, Russ Feingold issued a strategy that would see all US troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2006.

Ninety minutes into the proceedings, Representative Jones entered the hearing room, the only Republican present. "Thank you Congressman, you've made this bipartisan," Woolsey said with a laugh. Jones has quietly been lobbying fellow Republicans to support his "homeward bound" resolution, and he hopes to have 100 or 125 co-sponsors by the November recess. "More and more members are hearing from constituents back home," says Jones, who represents a military-heavy district in North Carolina that includes thousands of soldiers at Camp Lejeune. "We can't continue this war for three or four more years."

Iraq continues to top the list of voter anxieties, with 55 percent supporting full or partial withdrawal in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. A majority of the public wants money allocated for Iraq to instead pay for the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Yet much work remains to be done in Congress to probe whether the Bush Administration intends to exit Iraq, and when. Nearly forty years ago, under the leadership of Senator J. William Fulbright, hearings conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. At that time, it was Democrats and Republicans investigating a Democratic President; one establishment versus another. Today, Republicans (and many prominent Democrats) refuse to give their own "war President" a similar lashing. The question now is when Congress and the Administration will catch up to the prevailing sentiments of the citizens who elected them.

Did Someone Say Withdrawal?

For the first time since the war in Iraq began twenty-six months ago, the House of Representatives debated the need for U.S. troops to exit Iraq. The modest amendment, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California last Thursday evening, called on President Bush to develop a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. With virtually no prior notice or lobbying, 123 Democrats and 5 Republicans voted for Woolsey's amendment. But with no support from either the Democratic or Republican leadership, and thus no chance of passing, no major U.S. newspaper felt obligated to cover the unprecedented proceedings.

Instead, the House added $49 billion more for the Iraqi occupation--on top of the $82 billion recently appropriated--as part of the $491 billion 2006 National Defense Authorization Act. The massive defense bill establishes a new fleet of nuclear submarines, provides millions for new aircrafts and ships, adds $100 million for a missile defense system and expands research for bunker-busting bombs. All of this the House could easily support. But not a non-binding call for a withdrawal plan.

"We have never voted one time together, not one time in the 11 years I have been here," conservative North Carolina Republican Walter Jones said in reference to his support for Woolsey's amendment. "What I am saying here tonight is we have a responsibility. We should not be into some endless, endless war in Iraq." Republicans Howard Coble, John Duncan, Jim Leach and Ron Paul agreed.

"With more than $200 billion on the line," Woolsey asked, "Do the Members not think that the American people deserve to know what the President plans to do in Iraq?"

Apparently not, as Republicans countered with a time-honored strategy: portray those opposed to the occupation as soft, sissy appeasers. "Make no mistake about it," said House Armed Forces Chairman Duncan Hunter, "This amendment is a message-sender. It is a message-sender to people like Al Sadr...It is a message-sender to Zarqawi...It is a message-sender to our troops, who might, in seeing if this amendment should pass, feel that the resolve of the American people is fading away." To buttress their militarism, Republicans introduced combat veteran after combat veteran to speak on the House floor. "It is interesting that as a combat veteran, I spoke to literally thousands of other combat veterans, and it is amazing the differences of their opinions versus liberal politicians," said Rep. Duke Cunningham, Vietnam vet.

The majority of America must then be liberals, judging from recent public opinion polls. Iraq tops the list of American concerns in the latest Gallup poll, with three-fourths of those respondents advocating an immediate withdrawal. Sixty-four percent of conservative Democrats in a Pew survey want the troops brought home as soon as possible. And fifty-seven percent of Americans told CNN/USA Today/Gallup that the Iraq war was not worth fighting.

Rather than prepare an exit strategy, the U.S. military is instead planning to consolidate its forces in four massive American bases in Iraq. The move is not part of a plan to establish a permanent U.S. military presence, officials assured the Washington Post. But the structures have distinctly permanent characteristics, replete with blast-proof barracks. The funding came as part of the $82 billion supplemental approved a few weeks back. Congress, to be sure, raised nary a peep.

Al Gore Gets Down

During a town hall meeting on MTV in 2000, Al Gore dismissed a question about the rapper Mos Def. Throughout his career, Gore viewed hip-hop music, even when practiced by a politically conscious artist like Mos Def, as an undignified form of political expression. "Gandhi once said you must become the change you wish to see in the world," Gore said of hip-hop. "I don't think it's good enough to say, 'Well, we're just reflecting a reality.'"

Five years later, on a spring night in San Francisco, none other than Mos Def was anchoring the pre-launch party for Gore's new youth cable channel, Current, reflecting a reality of a different sort--that of the television business, where hipness trumps values. Gore was there too, trying to pump up enthusiasm for what he claims will be an entirely new approach to news and culture. Looking bulky but relaxed, Gore asked the diverse young crowd, "How many of y'all would like to see an opportunity to talk about what's going on in your world that you can participate in with television?"

Current screened three video clips as evidence of what the network plans to offer: the first a high-speed montage, created by a team of producers, freelancers and the audience itself, touching on everything from poppy fields in Morocco to hacking into Paris Hilton's cell phone; the second, a twice-hourly news update spotlighting the top ten queries on Google for any given subject; and the third, winner of a $10,000 submission prize, a satire of political campaign ads that came across as an amateurish stab at "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Reactions were lukewarm at best. "It's the same references you see on any other channel," said 26-year-old activist Julian Davis. "When did Google become alternative media?" asked 22-year-old filmmaker Jennie Heinlein.

Comments like these suggest that what Current has become is quite different from the vision Gore and his partner, Joel Hyatt, started with. What began as an effort to challenge Rupert Murdoch and the right-wing domination of the corporate media has transformed into a business proposition to lure a youth audience with lofty rhetoric, new technology and pop-culture content. Gore and Hyatt didn't have TV experience, so they ceded creative control to industry people who did. Along the way, "democratizing" the media--their buzzword from the get-go, which they described as giving space to ordinary young people--became more important than politics or elevating television's dismal content. What emerges on Aug. 1, Current's launch date, could resemble an interactive grad-school version of MTV. Current may still improve youth television and usher in a wave of new technology, but it isn't likely to change the media, or the world. "Less and less they're trying to run a company with a social mission," says Orville Schell, dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism and a member of Current's board of directors. "They want something that's new and interesting and economically viable."

After the 2000 election, Gore became increasingly concerned about the conservative shift in the press. While teaching at the Columbia School of Journalism, he invited Rupert Murdoch to discuss the corporate consolidation of the media. Around the same time, Gore was helping his old Democratic fundraiser Joel Hyatt, an influential lawyer and entrepreneur who teaches business at Stanford University, to try to buy The New Republic. When the deal fell through, their attention turned to the concept of starting a high-end political web site for progressives.

"The idea didn't have a business model," Hyatt says. "Both of us, having spent 2000 fundraising, didn't feel like once again asking our friends for money." They explored different media possibilities and hired Jamie Daves, who ran youth outreach for Bill Clinton in 1992 and served as a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission. Cable television, which Gore dubs "the dominant medium of our time," became the most appealing avenue, offering two revenue streams, from advertisers and subscribers. As they queried friends in the industry for advice, Gore and Hyatt kept hearing the same refrain: There is no market on TV for a liberal channel. No one will watch it. No advertiser wants it. No cable operator will put it on the air. So they turned to an emerging demographic that appealed to both advertisers and visionaries. Twentysomethings were defining their buying habits, coming into their own politically and were underserved creatively on television. The decision was made to launch a youth network. Gore, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.

Hyatt and Gore knew cable would be a tough market to crack. The most popular television shows for the 18-to-34 demographic today, according to Brad Adgate at Horizon Media, are "American Idol," "Desperate Housewives," "Apprentice 2," "CSI," "ER" and "Survivor." "The West Wing" ranks 90th, two spots ahead of "60 Minutes." The only network to attract and hold young viewers consistently has been MTV. "Young people trust what they get from MTV more than any other source," says Jehmu Greene, president of Rock the Vote. "It's an opportunity for Current to be the competitor and tap into those not watching MTV." In fact, the channel decided to aim at MTV's elder graduates, according to Annie Zehren, Current's head of marketing.

In fall 2002, Gore and Hyatt summoned leaders in media, technology and finance to brainstorm programming ideas at San Francisco's Global Business Network, an incubator for outside-the-box thinking. Gore had been influenced by an MTV show in the mid-1990s called "UNfiltered," which consisted of short personal narratives solicited by MTV and created by the audience. The subject matter ranged from Christian rock music to single mothers on heroin, but nearly all of it was raw, enthralling and new. Yet some participants at the gathering wondered if Gore's enthusiasm for grassroots television was authentic. "They [Gore and Hyatt] said they wanted 'genuinely bottom-up media,'" recounts Douglas Rushkoff, a new-media critic. "I kept thinking, Do you wanna do this or do you wanna do something that looks like this?" Rushkoff and others envisioned MoveOn.org in prime time: TV that could make civic affairs cool.

Gore and Hyatt, at Daves's suggestion, recruited Michael Rosenblum, the father of video journalism, to execute their plan and agreed to hire a cadre of fifty digital correspondents who'd form the backbone of the new network. Shortly thereafter, in May 2004, they acquired Newsworld International (NWI) from Vivendi Universal for a reported $70 million, and tentatively titled it INdTV. The network reached a slim 17 million U.S. households, but it gave Gore and Hyatt a launching pad. The 20 investors were exclusively friends of Gore and Hyatt, including Bradley Whitford, Melvin and Bren Simon, Albert Dwoskin, Warren Lieberfarb, Rob Glaser, Bill Joy, Bob Pittman and two California-based equity capital firms, Yucaipa Companies and Blum Capital Partners. The investors, many of them Democratic heavyweights, had various motivations for investing. Some thought they were getting a good deal on a network and wanted to be in a position to grab eyeballs at a cheap price if the venture failed. Others were doing Al and Joel a favor and thought the venture had a decent chance of succeeding. A third group had a larger social or political mission in mind. "People invested out of the belief we were doing something that had the potential to be valuable and important," Hyatt says. Glaser, CEO of the online multimedia company RealNetworks and a major Democratic donor, said through a spokesman that he "invested because he thinks Al Gore is smart and determined and will create a big success."

The investors will have to play an instrumental role if Current hopes to succeed in a market where five conglomerates determine virtually all of youth culture. Hyatt insists Current has the financial wherewithal to duke it out with the big boys, but it won't reveal which cable operators he's met with, how much money Current has or how they purchased NWI. "We have outstanding and deep-pocketed investors," is all he'll say. "We're the last--if not, certainly one of the last--independent companies to be launched." Current will start in 19 million households thanks to distribution agreements (known as "carriage" in industry lexicon) with DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, select markets of Comcast and smaller regional agreements. That's a better position than 95 percent of start-ups but a far cry from stable. Agreements with Dish Network, Cox, Cablevision, EchoStar and all of Comcast will be necessary to grow Current into 50 million households, at which point advertisers begin paying attention. Before that, it's a concept sell.

Essentially, Current will premier without a constituency. "Fox News is the only one who's really gained an audience [recently]," says Tom Wolzien, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "It's a tough go these days. You need to get distribution and then have enough money to put content on the screen that people will watch and then hope the advertisers will come." Time Warner is urging prospective start-ups to forget about 24/7 channels and move solely to on-demand programming. "The gale-force winds of the marketplace is the single most important dynamic that everyone in this industry has to deal with," Schell says. "Current is going to be no exception."

In fall 2004 the decision of whom to hire as the network's top staff began to refashion INdTV's identity away from substantive news and commentary and toward slick, MTV-style youth packaging. The new head of programming, David Neuman--the former programming chief for CNN who recruited Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien and started as a fellow in the Reagan White House--seemed like an old-school industry insider. The new head of marketing, Annie Zehren, had launched Teen People magazine. The new COO, Mark Goldman, had run Latin American operations for Rupert Murdoch's Sky News. As Gore and Hyatt relinquished creative control, Daves and Rosenblum were quickly let go. Social change was out, running a successful new network was in.

In December 2004, INdTV unveiled a batch of programming themes, including "That's F*&^#ed Up," "Addiction" and, most memorable, "INdTV Paparazzi: Get someone famous to opine on something substantive. (Hey, Paris [Hilton]--what did you think of Rumsfeld's quote on the armored Humvee shortage in Iraq?)." One unsuccessful digital-correspondent applicant, former TechTV intern Tim Lang, described INdTV's vision as "Amorphous Revolution. The overthrow of nothing in specific."

On April 1 INdTV transformed into Current and publicly resurfaced for a preview press screening at its stylish two-story headquarters--exposed brick walls and beams, wood floors, modern and minimalist art. Flat-screen TVs everywhere glowed with Current's new logo, four green squares reminiscent of a Josef Albers painting. Gore, wearing a gray suit, open black-collared shirt and black cowboy boots, amiably opened the press conference and reiterated what his network was not. "We have no intention of being a Democratic channel, a liberal channel or a TV version of Air America. That's not what we're all about. We are about empowering this generation of young people in the 18-to-34 population to engage in a dialogue of democracy and to tell their stories of what's going on in their lives, in the dominant medium of our time." The programming, Current officials explained, will be a mix of material produced by David Neuman's in-house team of young correspondents, queries from freelancers and submissions from the audience, which Current hopes will be the network's core. At the beginning, viewers will provide less than a third of all programming. But Neuman hopes to ramp up quickly, eventually soliciting a "tapas bar for young adults."

That night, as Current threw a street party for its target audience, Gore hosted a swanky, closed-door wine and hors d'oeuvres shindig at Current's headquarters, visible from the street through its large glass windows. Massaging the industry was more important than meddling with the masses. When Gore finally stepped out to address the crowd, he was trailed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn.

Press response to the pre-launch ranged from skeptical to sarcastic. "Finally a cable network for burned-out stoners of all ages," joked John Dvorak on MarketWatch.com. "Launching a cable channel is nearly impossible," wrote San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman. "Not even Gore's unquenchable enthusiasm can change that fact." "This week, I told former vice president Al Gore why his new cable-television venture would never work," wrote Newsweek's Brad Stone. The blogosphere, with its open-source proclivities, seemed more receptive. "If they can help create a generation of citizen journalists and indie mediamakers, they have my full-blooded support," blogged Chuck Olsen, an unsuccessful Current applicant and documentary filmmaker.

Current's business model depends on being different and separating itself from the 400-channel pack. But is the programming previewed thus far--attractive hosts in a "club-like atmosphere"; specials on celebrities, fashion, music, parenting, religion, technology and travel; fast, jump-cut editing for the MTV generation--really that distinct from what young people are already watching? "Politics" is simply another word in Current's programming lineup, not a guiding theme. "In the beginning, when the idea was long-form documentaries--they were perhaps not an antidote to Fox but an antidote to the soundbite broadcast media," Schell explains.

If the marketplace drove the network's decision to go after youth, then youth drove Current toward short-form content. The network likes to think of these one- to six-minute narrative segments, what they call "pods," as the new music video. "It was so consistent with the fast-paced, two-screen-consuming-at-the-same-time nature of this audience," Neuman explains. "This is an audience that has become 'media grazers,' and we decided to create a network that didn't fight that but rather facilitated that." But such a brief window allows for virtually no context, something that most of TV news already sorely lacks. "That's the old question," says Schell. "Do you satisfy what people want or do you try to change their taste?"

Now the audience--Current hopes--is in a position to answer that question, uploading videos, ranking what they see, fusing the choice of the Internet with the quality of TV. Current's online "assignment desk"--where would-be contributors can visit for ideas--contains a few promising suggestions, including "Current Citizen Journalist" ("Shoot a story that traditional news media won't touch because it's too big, too small, or too something") and "Current Change" ("Who's out there making positive change in the world?"). On the other hand, a featured 55-second submission on the web site shows drunken claymation figurines puking.

Gore, a geeky guy with a brilliant mind, maintains that the intersection of technology and culture will direct Current in the right direction. "I personally believe that when this medium is connected to the grassroots storytellers that are out there, it will have an impact on the kinds of things that are discussed and the way they are discussed," he said at the press conference. It sounds like a nonideological Dean campaign on television, complete with Current Meetups. Yet this vision--like Gore's "People Versus the Powerful" speech in 2000--may not last any longer than Gore's earlier forays into populism. Just take one look at cable TV news, with its recent wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo and the pope. "Networks do studies and research and put on what people will watch," says Victoria Clark, a lobbyist for Comcast and a former spokeswoman for the Pentagon. "It's a business." Such are the perils of Current's audience-generated model. If the 18-to-34 crowd really wants to see Paris Hilton, the Gore gatekeepers may be powerless to stop it. At the same time, if media savvy right-wingers test the opportunity that Current provides to air videos of themselves blocking abortion clinics or taunting left-wing Columbia professors, Current may choose to discourage political programming altogether. Opening the gates won't necessarily trigger more sophisticated content.

"What are you talking about when you say 'democratizing the media'?" asks Cara Mertes, the executive producer of the PBS documentary program "POV," which draws a substantially younger audience than regular PBS programming. "Is it using media to further democratic ends, to create an environment conducive to the democratic process through unity, empathy and civil discourse? Or does it mean handing over the means of production, which is the logic of public access. In that case, you get a shouting match, a bunch of stuff nobody is watching."

Can Current be serious and dignified and appealing and popular? "On air, you're faced with the tyranny of the mass media," says Steve Rosenbaum, creator of MTV's "UNfiltered," the inspiration for Current's initial vision. "Which is: If you do three pieces--one on the environment in Alaska, one on homeless people in New York and one on teenage girls getting breast implants, guess which one will do better than the others? People, especially those who watch TV, tend to be attracted to less intelligent, coarser, less thoughtful programming."

Current has always been a work in progress, and perhaps never more so than today, only a few months before its launch. One thing is certain, however. Whatever Gore and Hyatt create won't be part of a broader progressive movement reclaiming American media. The more Gore says Current won't be political, the more likely he is to turn off the grassroots activists (and political players) who may have supported him. "They missed an opportunity to trade on that hunger for meaningful participation," Rushkoff says. "They underestimated how far they could've gotten."

Maybe, in this age of corporate consolidation, launching a viable, independent media company is itself an act of political resistance. Yet one can't help getting the sense that Gore and Hyatt, by buying a network, lining up bigwig investors, hiring industry professionals and courting advertisers and cable operators, ended up doing new media in a decidedly old-fashioned way. Instead of transforming the media, the media business may have transformed them.

Judgment at Baghdad

Everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, if tried properly, should be found guilty of crimes against humanity. But a long list of human rights groups and international law experts doubt if the tyrant and his deputies will receive the due process and fair trials promised by U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

Legal observers are "concerned about the decision to use the death penalty, unclear rules of evidence and what they see as the accused's inadequate access to their lawyers," the Los Angeles Times wrote on Sunday. "They also see an overall lack of transparency in the proceedings and question whether the Iraqi judges have the expertise to handle such far-reaching cases." Last week insurgents assassinated a judge and lawyer for the special tribunal a day after the first charges were announced.

The first defendants will be five of Saddam's lieutenants, most notably his half-brother Barzan and Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, both implicated in a series of mass killings in 1982. Future defendants include Saddam's notorious cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, aka Chemical Ali, and the former defense minister. The tribunal will use these cases to build a paper trail against the leader himself, who likely won't be tried until next year.

Unlike the four international war crimes tribunals currently run by the UN in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Rwanda, Saddam's trial will be administered by Iraqis and supervised by America. Paul Bremer created the Iraqi Special Tribunal in December 2003, naming Salem Chalabi, Ahmad's nephew, as special prosecutor. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi eventually pushed Chalabi aside by stacking the court with hand-picked loyalists. The names of the tribunal's 35 judges and 400 staff members have been shielded for security reasons, only increasing skepticism.

Then there's the question of U.S. complicity. The American government supplied Saddam with landmines for his war against Iran, and American companies, with the government's approval, sold the chemical agents used against Iranian troops and Iraq's own Kurdish population. A trial under American occupation likely won't force Donald Rumsfeld to describe his meetings with Saddam in 1983 and 1984, after the U.S. knew he was deploying chemical weapons. Or ask George Bush I why he issued a national security directive in October 1989 calling for normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iraq. Or why Colin Powell and Dick Cheney encouraged the Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South to revolt, and then did nothing when Saddam brutally suppressed the uprisings, leading to thousands of mass graves.

"We want Saddam to talk," Alan Zangaga of the U.S.-based Kurdish Human Rights Watch told Inter Press Service. "We want to know from Saddam which weapons he used and where he got them. ... We need this information established in a court of law." Once public, the Kurds and other groups targeted by Saddam could sue American companies for damages, similar to how Holocaust survivors targeted Swiss banks.

Since the war, America has adopted a go-it-alone mentality especially evident in the creation of the new tribunal. After failing to protect mass grave sites and government ministries housing crucial evidence in the wake of the invasion, coalition authorities rebuffed human rights groups when they offered assistance to the tribunal. Kofi Annan, angered by the tribunal's use of the death penalty and America's skirting of international law, forbade The Hague from helping to train Iraqi lawyers and judges. The State and Justice Departments are now assuming this formidable task.

"Where in the world can you say this is an independent judiciary, with U.S. proxies appointing and controlling judges, with US-gift-wrapped cases?" asks Cherif Bassiouni, former chairman of the UN war crimes investigation in Yugoslavia. "In the Arab world, there is already the perception this a mockery." America's cavalier overreach could also taint the tribunal's legitimacy where it matters most. "This tribunal is not ours," Zuhair Almaliky, the chief investigative judge of Iraq's central criminal court, told The New York Times last summer. "It is somebody who came from abroad who created a court for themselves."

Along with its revisionist rationale for the war (see democracy), the Bush administration hopes that Saddam's trial will overshadow the chaos sowed by invasion and occupation. For the sake of Iraqis, justice should matter more than PR.

Going Nowhere

In May 2003 the centrist Democratic Leadership Council published its yearly list of "100 New Democrats to Watch." The DLC frequently puts out these lists as a way to publicly solidify its identification with the New Democratic movement within the Democratic Party. The 2003 list, however, contained a number of questionable additions, including then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama. As a state senator, Obama had continually passed progressive legislation -- a record that he vowed to add to when he began his run for the U.S. Senate on a platform of clear opposition to the Patriot Act, the Iraq War and NAFTA, all positions anathema to the DLC. The puzzling addition caused The Black Commentator magazine to wonder, a month after the DLC list came out, whether Obama had been "corrupted" by the centrist group. Obama's reply to the Commentator was indicative of how the DLC plays the "New Democrat" card.

"Neither my staff nor I have had any direct contact with anybody at the DLC since I began this campaign a year ago," Obama wrote. "I don't know who nominated me for the DLC list of 100 rising stars, nor did I expend any effort to be included on the list. ... I certainly did not view such inclusion as an endorsement on my part of the DLC platform." After realizing that his name appeared in the DLC's database, Obama asked to have it removed. The message was clear: The DLC needed Obama a lot more than Obama needed the DLC.

Today, the same is true for many politicians. After dominating the party in the 1990s, the DLC is struggling to maintain its identity and influence in a party beset by losses and determined to oppose George W. Bush. Prominent New Democrats no longer refer to themselves as such. The New Democratic movement of pro-free market moderates, which helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992, has splintered, transformed by a reinvigoration of grassroots energy. A host of new donors, groups and tactics has forged a new direction for Democrats inside and outside the party, bringing together vital parts of the old centrist establishment and the traditional Democratic base. The ideological independence of the DLC, which pushed the party to the right, has come to be viewed as a threat rather than a virtue, forcing the DLC to adapt accordingly. Corporate fundraisers and D.C. connections -- the lifeblood of the DLC -- matter less and less: Witness the ascent of MoveOn.org and Howard Dean's election as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). "It's not that the DLC changed," says Kenneth Baer, who wrote a history of the organization. "It's that the world changed around the DLC."

Today's DLC is a far cry from the anti-establishment organization created by New Democrats who captured power within the party in the Clinton era by distancing themselves from the party's traditional base and liberal candidates. After co-founding the DLC in 1985, former congressional aide Al From aggressively expanded what had been an informal caucus of Southern and Western congressmen into a $7-million-a-year operation at its peak in 2000. By that time it had 5,000 members, who paid $50 a pop to join; and politicians, policy wonks and lobbyists flocked to its annual conferences. The DLC's tough free-market positions, connections to big business and early media savvy enticed Clinton into becoming chair in 1990. Although the organization always took more credit than it deserved for his 1992 victory, downplaying Ross Perot's impact and Clinton's own charisma, that election nevertheless institutionalized the DLC's rising status. DLC strategists William Galston, Elaine Kamarck and Bruce Reed became top domestic policy aides in the Clinton White House. After the Republican Revolution of 1994, From told the Democrats to "get with the [DLC] program." The DLC quickly became the new Washington establishment, launching state chapters, creating a New Democratic Coalition in Congress and expanding its Progressive Policy Institute think tank. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the post-Clinton Democratic Party, "The DLC has taken it over."

But the DLC's great hopes in 2000 of becoming a permanent power center in Washington never materialized. Al Gore's promising New Democratic candidacy turned sour for the DLC when Gore, a DLC founder, switched to a populist strategy after trailing in the polls. No one but the DLC believes that strategy cost Gore the election. "Gore's defeat didn't reinvigorate the DLC as the defeat of Dukakis did, nor did it vindicate their strategy like the election of 1992," says Baer, a Gore speechwriter in 2000. In George W. Bush's first term, the DLC emerged as an important backer of "compassionate conservatism" and convinced the Democratic leadership to back Bush's war with Iraq. Current and former DLC chairmen Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt flanked Bush at a ceremony announcing the war resolution. Still enthralled by centrist orthodoxy, pro-war candidates emerged as early frontrunners in the Democratic primary.

No candidate embodied the New Democrat ethos better than Lieberman, whose moral purity, hawkish views and name recognition earned him early Beltway supporters. Thus, when Howard Dean came into view, the DLC was quick to underestimate Dean's potential resonance with Democratic voters, misjudge the transformative nature of his campaign and mischaracterize the ideological bent of many of his supporters. After supporting a losing candidate in Lieberman, the unpopular war in Iraq and an outdated platform, attacking Dean was the only way the DLC could shift the Democratic debate.

"What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration; the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," From and Reed wrote in a fiery memo titled "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party" on May 15, 2003. Four days later, after Dean won the endorsement of the 1.5 million-member public employees union AFSCME, the DLC denounced the union as "fringe activists." But others were having second thoughts -- about strategy and the DLC. As Dean surged ahead, DNC chairman and Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe told From to quiet the attacks. All nine Democratic contenders skipped the DLC's annual convention in Philadelphia.

For his part, Dean became the first serious presidential candidate to challenge the DLC openly since Jesse Jackson. But along with his clear anti-war stance, Dean frequently invoked his record of balancing budgets and his A rating from the NRA. (In fact, in 1996 the DLC had praised re-election of "the centrist Gov. Howard Dean" as indicative of a blossoming "New Democratic leadership.") This led many analysts to wonder whether the DLC's animosity was more about power than ideology. "Mr. From fancies himself a kingmaker," wrote then-Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, "and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his table."

Major fissures emerged within the New Democratic movement as the DLC lost longstanding ideological and organizational support. Elaine Kamarck repudiated her "Politics of Evasion" argument -- which laid out the policy blueprint for Clintonism -- in a series of Newsday columns, arguing that the Dean campaign rendered the D.C. establishment "pretty much irrelevant." After Kamarck endorsed Dean in early January 2004, the DLC-friendly New Republic wrote: "Al From's Head Explodes." "The Democrats are not where we were 15 years ago," Kamarck now says. "I think it's great that there's been a resurgence in grassroots activism on the left side of the party."

A public feud also emerged between From and the New Democratic Network (NDN), which the DLC founded as its own political action committee to elect New Democrats to Congress. The NDN had been run by loyal DLC prot�g� Simon Rosenberg since 1996. Rosenberg eschewed the DLC's high-profile attacks and ideological rigidity, viewing Dean as the most innovative leader since Clinton. "I didn't support Dean's candidacy or agree with him on many issues," Rosenberg told Time's Joe Klein. "But I appreciated how he did what he did. I also thought it was time for New Democrats to declare victory in the intellectual wars and make peace with the party infrastructure." To that end, Rosenberg kept the NDN centrist in orientation but competed with the DLC for members and money, launching an expensive media campaign targeting Hispanic voters and forming alliances with blogs like DailyKos and MyDD and organizations like MoveOn.org. After ending his bid for DNC chairman, Rosenberg endorsed Dean. "NDN pluralized the concept of a New Democrat," says political analyst Ruy Teixeira. "You can now say you're a New Democrat and have very different views from Al From."

The media coverage of its attacks, plus Dean's own implosion, breathed temporary life into the DLC, as it assumed a large role in John Kerry's policy shop. As the Anybody But Bush movement mobilized, the DLC quietly pushed Kerry rightward, dubbing him "a pragmatic centrist in the Clinton mode."

After Kerry's defeat, the DLC promised to "avoid the circular firing squad" mentality but then quickly broke the promise, reverting to its favorite target: the Democratic base. Instead of labor unions and feminists, the DLC fixated on MoveOn.org and Michael Moore. "We need to be the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, not Michael Moore," the DLC wrote on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, of all places. "What leftist elites smugly imagine is a sophisticated view of their country's flaws strikes much of America as a false and malicious cartoon," the DLC's Will Marshall wrote in Blueprint, the group's magazine, in a rant worthy of The Weekly Standard. "Democrats should have no truck with the rancid anti-Americanism of the conspiracy-mongering left." The DLC continued this vitriol into March.

Such attacks put the DLC back on the front page -- a fact that speaks to one of its ongoing sources of strength. For Washington journalists, the DLC is an ideal organization, frequently critical and readily accessible. Privately, DLC staffers complain that only controversy will bring coverage. A fat Rolodex, the product of years spent mingling with journalists, gives the DLC an illusion of real power. The New York Times and Washington Post mentioned or quoted the DLC 200 times during the electoral season, 40 more mentions than the Club for Growth, a leading player in the right-wing movement.

The DLC's media savvy has helped it build a wealth of connections. The organization now claims hundreds of state elected officials in the New Democratic directory published on its web site. Some, like Bayh or Lieberman, are true believers. Others are happy for the free publicity gained from attending a conference or being named "New Democrat of the Week." And for politicians in red states, joining the DLC offers political cover. "It's the easiest, cheapest way for a politician who wants to be equated with a 'different kind of Democrat,'" says former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who endorsed Rosenberg for DNC chair. "It doesn't mean anything anymore."

For example, 14 members of the House New Democratic Coalition earned perfect ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 2002 or 2003. "The mothership idea of a New Democrat was never shared by the DLC's rank and file, and it's less so today," says Teixeira. The House Coalition lost 36 members over the past two years. "Their universe of federal elected officials is relatively small," adds Baer. Of course, the fact that a New Democratic Coalition even exists is testament to the DLC's past success in creating, identifying and marketing a New Democratic brand.

Centrist elected officials have prospered with the DLC's institutional backing, a luxury never afforded to alternative groups like the House Progressive Caucus, which has failed to translate its sizable membership into lasting influence. (Its web site hasn't been updated since the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action in June 2003.) In the Senate, progressives are even less organized. The fact that conservative Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln speak through the New Democratic Coalition while center-left Dems like Patrick Leahy and Byron Dorgan lack institutional support is one way the DLC survives.

Conservative Democrats also subsist on "warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust," as the Washington Monthly wrote recently, or what DLC fellow (and former Christian Coalition staffer) Marshall Whitman boasts of as the "tried and tested formula for the Democratic Party's resurgence." But today, emerging wisdom holds that Clintonism without Clinton is not a winning strategy. When Clinton entered office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Democrats now have their smallest minority presence in decades. All eight candidates for whom Clinton campaigned in 2004 lost. Nevertheless, the DLC has adopted Clinton's triangulation tactics on national security, economic policies and family values for the "Heartland Strategy" it's developing to help Democrats win in the red states. What Daily Show comedian Lewis Black said recently of Democrats in general is true in spades for the DLC: "Sometimes the devil you know is better than winning."

The "Third Way" of Clinton has now largely given way to opposing George W. Bush. Upon entering the new Congress in January, the House Democratic leadership berated lawmakers for voting with the GOP and warned Democrats that loyalty would become a prerequisite for assuming a committee chair. Senate minority leader Harry Reid has virtually united Democrats against Social Security privatization, opened a "war room" to counteract the Republican message and promised future fights against conservative judges. Such attitudes illustrate how times appear to be changing in one-party Washington, especially for New Democrats. "The New and Old labels aren't relevant at this point," says former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, past chairman of Pennsylvania's state DLC chapter. "Now that we're in the minority, we need unity to win elections." In the race for DNC chair, the only candidate to embrace a New Democratic platform actively, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, ran far behind, mainly because of his anti-choice record. Simon Rosenberg downplayed his past ties to the DLC, emphasizing his work modernizing the NDN. Dean rode to victory on an anti-establishment, reform message. DNC members this year responded favorably to the "outsider" candidate. Now the DLC's archnemesis is in charge of rebuilding the Democratic Party.

Dean won't be alone. The progressive infrastructure that helped keep Kerry alive and began crafting a sharper Democratic message -- America Votes, Progressive Majority, Camp Wellstone, Democracy for America, Center for American Progress, Air America Radio, Media Matters, the blogosphere -- now exerts a greater degree of influence, bankrolled by new, wealthy outsiders and small donors who share similar goals. George Soros and Peter Lewis have pledged $100 million over the next 15 years to support a permanent idea factory rivaling right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the mushy centrism of the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute. "We've come to represent a way of doing politics that is dangerous to people in D.C. who have a nice little niche," says MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser. "Bringing in the grassroots will mean a loss of influence for some of the establishment folks."

The DLC finally seems to be getting the message, revising some of its past positions to accommodate a new desire for party unity and a more progressive, grassroots focus. In 2002 the DLC supported privatizing Social Security. Now it's opposed. Evan Bayh, a likely presidential contender in 2008, bucked his fellow New Democrats and voted against the nominations of Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state and Alberto Gonzales for attorney general. "We're not trying to impose litmus tests," says DLC policy director Ed Kilgore, a more conciliatory figure than From or Marshall. "It's a little daunting to always be called Republican-lite." Younger DLC members privately say they'll become more involved only when From retires. Quietly, the DLC has been offering "value-based" training for Democratic officials for the past seven years. "Our main focus is now outside the Beltway," Kilgore adds, though he admits that the DLC "has never pretended, nor tried, to be a true grassroots organization." The effort sounds promising, but time will tell whether the DLC can sufficiently reinvent itself; the DLC eliminated its state chapters after they became too independent of Washington.

"Let Republicans be the party of Washington," From wrote recently. "We should take up the reform mantle." To that end, the DLC is even borrowing traditional liberal passions like electoral reform. But before it tries to reform the Democratic Party, the old dinosaur of the Democratic establishment may first have to reform itself.

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