There are three questions people ask Rick Cusick when they learn he's an editor at High Times magazine.
"How did you get your job at High Times?"
"Can you get me a job at High Times?"
"Can you get me some weed?"
Picking at a greasy cheeseburger and French fries in the magazine's Manhattan lunchroom, Cusick ticks off the triad of common inquiries. The four other High Times staffers at the table crack up. "You told me that when I first started here and I thought you were joking," says a co-worker. "But four days after I started working here, I'd heard all the same questions."
They're not particularly surprising. After all, High Times is a monthly pothead publication, a Day-Glo testament to Mary Jane idolatry with a circulation of 175,000. Marijuana leaves dominate the magazine's glossy covers like hippie Christmas trees; inside are full-color centerfolds of sticky, crystalline buds photographed reverentially like buxom starlets, anonymous photos of clandestine ganja gardens, fatties the size of burritos. Each month, the publication's 96 pages are littered with garish ads plugging urine-detox products and hydroponic growing chambers, not to mention cannabis seeds and cannabis-flavored lollipops.
"There are people who smoke marijuana and there are people who define themselves as marijuana smokers," says Cusick. High Times is for the latter. "These are connoisseurs. These are people who're into the culture."
This is not a casual culture, a smoking circle content with stem-filled dime bags and resin-scraped bowls. Rather, this is the territory of two-foot bongs and herbal vaporizers.
"High Times is for the pot smoker," agrees editor Steve Bloom, who's worked at the publication for 15 years. "They spend money on marijuana; they spend money on paraphernalia. When they travel, they go to destinations that are pot-friendly. They're stoners. And stoners stick together because stoners are persecuted." Since possessing or selling pot is technically illegal, the regular pipe-packing burner is something of an outlaw – and High Times reflects its readers' resulting sense of camaraderie.
But outlaw culture has changed tremendously since High Times was launched in 1974. Drug use is both less and more marginalized than it was 30 years ago, and the drugs of choice have changed. LSD, which made occasional appearances in the early years of High Times, isn't nearly as prevalent as it was 30 years ago; for years, in fact, there's been a national acid shortage. Psychedelics' cerebral trips have given way to ecstasy's physical, full-bodied sensations.
As for marijuana, a specialized-niche magazine like High Times is less essential to casual pot users than it used to be, when it was first flooding the white middle class, and yet weed is also coming under increasing assault. As recently as 2003, the US Department of Justice launched Operation Pipe Dreams, an assault on the drug-paraphernalia industry that indicted more than 50 business owners and landed Tommy Chong in jail. Then there's the little fact that the country's political map is redder than ever. In this climate, can High Times continue to exist, never mind prosper?
Some people go to church. Others call their therapists. And then there are those – millions of them – who, when the urge arises to confess the frank, dirty, embarrassing, humbling, and troubling details of their lives, visit GroupHug.us.
Sound crazy? Even Jamaica Plain graphic designer Gabriel Jeffrey, who launched the Web site on a whim in the fall of 2003, never expected that within its first three months, GroupHug would receive 13 million hits. He didn't anticipate that thousands of strangers, drawn to the promise of complete anonymity, would post confessions ranging from the mundane ("I really like the taste of turkey Gerber baby food") to the momentous ("I live the kind of life that lots of others envy, but I think of suicide every day").
Now, a year and a half after its initial meteoric rise, GroupHug is still thriving – and has recently spawned a book, Stoned, Naked, and Looking in My Neighbor's Window: The Best Confessions from GroupHug.us (Justin, Charles; 2004). But Jeffrey's own confession? He's ready to move on to other projects. "My interest in it is done," admits the 25-year-old entrepreneur. "It's like a record that I really liked in high school."
How'd you come up with the idea for GroupHug?
Now and then I'll do some random project. I've been a freelance designer; while I was freelancing, I would do random projects just to keep things interesting. So I'd been wanting to do sort of a community-built magazine, and I thought anonymity would be kind of a cool feature. After distilling the idea, I wound up coming up with the idea of confessions. I figured it was a good, concise way to have a bunch of personal stories that were anonymous. So I thought about it, not really too hard, actually, for a couple of weeks before I just sat down and scribbled down my ideas and made the thing. Total, I probably spent four hours making it.
Who did you originally think would post their confessions?
Oh, just friends and friends of friends. I put it online and sent the link out to half a dozen friends, maybe, and it just started that way.
When did you first realize it was spreading beyond that?
Within a matter of days. I mean, on the first day it was up, there were 30 confessions. The second day there were maybe 50, the third day I think 150. Within a week, I was looking at thousands. Just from the third week alone, there were around 2.5 million hits.
Did you ever feel like you'd gotten in over your head?
Oh yeah, definitely. When I first started it, you would post a confession and it would go immediately to the web site. That worked fine when it was sort of a controlled group, or peers who got it. Very quickly I had to hack together a moderation system; all that did was, somebody would submit a confession, and I would have to go in and approve each one. By the end of the third week, obviously, that became unmanageable. So I got my brother and a couple of friends to start helping me moderate, and at the same time, I put out a little classified ad looking for a programmer to basically work with me for free, to figure out a better way to do it. I actually got, I think, 30 qualified applicants who wanted to do it for free, which was amazing.
Why do you think that is?
Programmers are divas, and they want their name on something big. If that means putting in some free time to build on your portfolio, it's worth it. And by that time, certainly in the web world, GroupHug was starting to be known after a few weeks. A month later I was able to launch the new one with the help of Adam Bregenzer. There have been some refinements since then, but it's really held up pretty well.
What do you think the appeal is? Obviously you didn't expect it to become so huge; why do you think it has?
I think it's kind of the whole package. When I started, I thought it was a terribly original idea, and then of course the first thing anyone does when people start to pay you any attention is to try to burst your bubble. So I got dozens of e-mails saying, "Hey, there's this site that already does that, and that site that already does that." But it was clear after a few weeks that GroupHug, for whatever reason, had caught on in a way that others hadn't.
From a design standpoint, it was very simple, very easy to use. The name, GroupHug, it's fairly disarming, I think. It just felt right to people, fun and safe. It had some serious momentum pretty quickly, and once there was that kind of momentum, it just kept going. I think there was an element of luck, an element of timing, and possibly just having the right friends who had enough friends to keep forwarding it around.
Do you think the popularity of GroupHug goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of reality TV? The whole voyeurism thing?
Definitely. People are eating that stuff up. Everybody wants to be a part of it. For whatever reason, right now the cultural Zeitgeist dictates that everybody wants to be a porn star, and everyone wants to let it all hang out.
Tell me about your encounter with the Secret Service.
It was pretty early on; I think it might've been the same month that I started. I was out of town, and early in the morning I was walking to get coffee, and I got a call from my friend who actually owned the machine that the site was living on, saying that the Secret Service had contacted him, and he'd given them my information. Five minutes later, somebody from the Secret Service called me and asked a bunch of questions about how anonymous is it, what kind of information did I keep? And then they wanted to talk about a specific confession threatening the commander in chief, and if there was any information I could give them. I explained exactly what I did have and what I didn't have, and it satisfied them enough that I didn't hear from them again.
Did that experience make you think, what the hell am I doing?
That certainly made me do a little research as far as my responsibilities with something like this. What I found out, more or less, was that I should be prepared to cooperate.
How do you determine if a confession is real or made up? Or doesn't it matter?
My guidelines have been the same since day one, the guidelines for submitting it and the guidelines for approving it and all that. They're pretty basic. The first one's that it should be a confession. The second and third are basically no violent crimes, no sex crimes. Then no identifying information; it really has to be anonymous. Other than that, it's kind of up to people's best judgment. It's a public-moderation system now, so people sort of vote. I do encourage them to weed out the obvious lies, but that's not so easy. I think the final round of moderation is when people are reading it, and kind of get to decide for themselves. I'm sure there are some really poignant, interesting confessions that are completely made up, but then, I don't know how much that matters, because the point isn't really that this person exists and this exact situation happened.
Aside from the presidential threat, do you ever get confessions that seem dangerous, like someone's thinking of hurting someone else? Is there anything you can do when that happens?
There's nothing I can do. That's probably the biggest dilemma with this whole thing. You can make an argument that because it's anonymous, and because people can post anything, that it's doing more harm than good. But I don't know. If people actually are doing horrible things and confessing about them, they've already done it. I'm providing a public bulletin board. I certainly hope it's not encouraging any kind of unethical behavior.
So you don't ever get confessions from people saying they're planning to do something bad, and then you're left feeling like, oh no, there's nothing I can do to stop this?
That's probably one of the reasons I don't read the thing anymore.
You don't read it at all?
I know initially GroupHug was a spare-time project for you. What were you doing with the bulk of your time then, and what about now?
Then I was a freelance graphic designer. [GroupHug] has never made me any money. Hopefully, the book will make some money. But it's never been a job. As much time as I may have put into it, it was always in my free time. Now I probably spend less time than ever dealing with it. I'm personally moving into a full-time job that's going to really require all of my time. I'm an art director at Arnold Worldwide. So I probably won't have a whole lot of time to coddle my little web baby.
Well, it sounds like you're somewhat bored with it at this point, anyway.
Yeah. The nice thing about the book, for example, was that by necessity I reached a point where I was done with it. Now I just sit back and wait for my millions to roll in. Whereas with something like a web site, it's an indefinite kind of project. I didn't know how long I would keep it around. I've kind of thrown together other little experiments that I got bored enough with to where I shut them down or they just didn't catch on. This one, people are still interested in, so it'll be up, as far as I know, forever. My interest in it is done. I had my fun with it. As far as a social experiment goes, I guess it was a success: it caught on, created a meme. People are still really interested in it. I suppose I'd probably be interested in finding somebody who was more genuinely interested in the topic matter to keep it running.
Who chose which confessions would be in the book?
I did. At that point I was much more familiar with the content than I am now, so I handpicked all of them for the book.
Did you have favorites that had stuck with you?
Yeah, there were a few that I had bookmarked, just because I thought they were particularly funny or interesting. Now none of them stick with me. It's like a record that I really liked in high school.
That you never want to listen to again.
So are you tired of talking about it?
Honestly, sometimes, yeah. I like it when somebody recognizes it, or maybe knows who I am in relation to it. Some people have asked me if it bums me out that it might be one of my major life accomplishments. Not really. I don't expect it to follow me in any kind of negative way.
People are probably asking you to talk about it a lot right now because of the book.
Yeah, exactly. And I'm certainly interested in promoting the book. But as far as the whole concept of the site and all that, I kind of feel like I've talked it to death. I don't have any new analysis on it.
Well, maybe you can talk to me about this: your publisher's publicist says "the concept of the online confessional has numerous social, cultural, and religious ramifications worth exploring." Tell me about that quote.
I think that's probably true. Other people have explored it in far more depth than I have. I've been sent several papers that people have written about it, and some people have written some sort of interesting things in the press. I think what was interesting to me about it in the first place was having a successful project and just seeing what people would do with it. I don't think it has any ramifications, really. People have been doing the exact same thing forever, like messages in a bottle or hobo signs on trains or graffiti or letters to the editor. I think it's one in a long line of people telling stories. I suspect that somebody will do something more interesting with the concept at some point in the future.
Two weeks ago, while hearing arguments in the landmark Supreme Court case Ashcroft vs. Raich – which by this spring will decide whether federal agents can arrest medical-marijuana users even in states where such use is legal – Justice Stephen Breyer questioned the logic of having a patchwork of disparate state laws. Instead, he suggested, medical-marijuana proponents would be better off petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reclassify pot as a prescribable drug.
"That seems to be the obvious way to get this done," he said. "Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum."
Would that it were so easy. As it happens, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) late last week effectively blocked the only proposed project that might lead to FDA-approved marijuana, rejecting a petition by Dr. Lyle Craker, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusets at Amherst, to obtain DEA approval to grow pot for FDA-approved research.
"In practical terms, this really does mean that the door is shut to pursuing FDA approval of marijuana as a medicine in any reasonable time frame," says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Currently, all marijuana used for research in the United States comes from a Mississippi farm overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But researchers have complained that the stuff is of poor quality and that the feds are stingy distributing it.
More important, says Mirken, "The NIDA crop is grown for the specific purpose of research. There's absolutely no indication that it could ever be available for prescription sale, should the FDA ever authorize that. The reason that's critical is that the FDA, if they're going to approve something as a prescription drug, needs to know how that drug is going to be manufactured, and needs to review clinical trials on the same product that's going to be sold."
Craker's facility would have offered an alternative source for FDA study and, perhaps, a strain that could someday be prescribed.
The DEA's decision comes grudgingly. Craker first submitted his application in June 2001, and this past July, after more than three years without an answer, Craker and the Belmont-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which would have financed the UMass facility, filed suit, charging the agency with stalling unreasonably.
In a Dec. 10 letter to Craker, the DEA's William J. Walker reasoned that granting approval "would not be consistent with the public interest," since "current marijuana research has not progressed to Phase II of the clinical trials [exploratory research into safety and efficacy, with human subjects] because current research must use smoked marijuana ...."
DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite declined to comment, pointing instead to the text of Walker's letter. But MAPS president Rick Doblin charges the DEA with essentially prejudging a study that has yet to take place.
"They're making this decision, before the research is done, that the research would show that it can't work." Moreover, he says, their claim is simply not true. State-funded Phase II research is indeed taking place right now in California. Also, the feds have stalled approval of MAPS-funded work with vaporizers, an alternative to smoking, for almost a year and a half.
"We knew that they would rather delay, as long as they could, than to explicitly telegraph to everybody that they're not going to permit the research to be done," Doblin says. But now that they have, "we get to argue them on the merits."
The next 30 days will find Craker, possibly in conjunction with MAPS, filing for an administrative-law hearing to appeal the decision once and for all – a process that, all told, could take more than a year.
Mirken, for one, isn't holding his breath. "As long as the DEA appears to have a deep prejudice against the medical use of marijuana, which their letter certainly suggests, the game will always be rigged. They will make you jump through these bureaucratic hoops, but they know what the outcome will be, because they've decided in advance what it's going to be."
Moreover, he says, what this finding means in the near term is that "the only way that [medical marijuana] patients are going to be protected is through changes in state law and changes in federal law. The Supreme Court might help us out some in Ashcroft v. Raich, but nobody's betting the farm on that. And even that would only provide protection to patients in states that have medical-marijuana laws."
Still, there may be a silver lining. "Now, what's going to happen is that this is gonna fuel more effort to pass state laws, even if the Supreme Court says the feds have primacy," says Doblin. Mirken, too, thinks state lawmakers will be compelled to pay more attention to medical marijuana once they "realize what [the DEA] has done. I think a lot of people have taken the view that Justice Breyer expressed in the Supreme Court two weeks ago when he said, 'Why don't you guys just go to the FDA?' With that door shut, legislators should see – and our job is to make sure they understand – that the actions they can take are the only protections available to patients for the foreseeable future."
"We're disappointed, but we're not surprised," says Mirken. "This simply illustrates, very clearly, how deep the official prejudice is against considering that marijuana might be a medicine. In the DEA's letter, they essentially pass judgment on research that hasn't occurred yet, saying that the deleterious effect would be too great. Isn't that for the FDA to judge? But I think in some ways it's probably helpful to the cause to have that naked prejudice out there in black and white. It's clear that there's this whole anti-drug bureaucracy that just has no interest in science."
Al Aronowitz is sitting in a booth at the International House of Pancakes in Elizabeth, N.J., reflecting on lessons learned. He's thinking back on a time in his own life when he smoked an awful lot. Specifically, he's remembering a night, Aug. 28, 1964, in Manhattan's Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue. The night when he introduced his pal Bob Dylan to the Beatles – and introduced the lads from Liverpool to a poorly rolled joint of his own "evil weed." That night, he'd later write, "I was well aware ... that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music."
Once upon a time, Aronowitz knew everybody. As a cub reporter, he interviewed Marilyn Monroe. He could phone Frank Sinatra at the Sands. He traveled to San Francisco to study the burgeoning Beat movement with a sociologist's rigor and a hedonist's abandon. The unexpurgated, 10,770-word manuscript of his 1964 article on Beatlemania for the Saturday Evening Post is a masterpiece of long-form reportage, a kaleidoscopic up-close view of a seismic cultural shift. (It sold more copies than any issue since Ben Franklin founded the magazine, in 1728.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his "Pop Scene" column in the New York Post had him rubbing shoulders with the Stones and the Band, and had people whispering his name when he walked into clubs.
But Aronowitz did more than just profile his subjects. He became their friends, and they his. Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in Aronowitz's kitchen. Aronowitz drove Dylan to buy his infamous Triumph motorcycle (the one he crashed in 1966 under still-mysterious circumstances). John Lennon photographed him with and without pants. Miles Davis played him his records over the phone. Johnny Cash once threatened to punch him out. Aronowitz was writing about rock and roll before that vocation became a clichÃ©, but he was less reporter than participant. Art Garfunkel called him "Uncle Al, the man who introduces everybody to everybody."
But things fell apart. In 1972, Aronowitz's wife died of cancer. He lost his column thanks to conflict-of-interest charges made by his editor. (Aronowitz suspects there was a personal vendetta at work.) He had managed middling, money-hemorrhaging rock acts in the 1960s, and it cost him his house. The mid-1970s country music concerts he promoted in New York City were bombs. He was freebasing cocaine, dealing drugs, and descending into something approaching madness. "It all made me crazy," he says. "I was crazy. Really crazy." Suddenly, the man who had built his life around others was all but alone. If he wasn't officially blacklisted from journalism, the effect was the same. No one wanted to know the man who knew everyone. Not New York editors, not Bob Dylan. And to hear him tell it, Aronowitz didn't want to know himself.
But then, in 1995, his daughter introduced him to a still-new phenomenon: the Internet. If magazine and newspaper editors wouldn't take his calls, then fuck them; here was a new way to publish. In his dark and druggy days, he'd put out a scattershot Xeroxed 'zine called the Blacklisted Masterpieces of Al Aronowitz. ("YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FAITH that this book will be recognized as an important literary work and a valuable collector's item to want to pay $100 for it!" trumpeted the 'zine's ad in the Village Voice. "MORE THAN SIX COPIES NOW IN PRINT!") But this was something else: a vast, uncharted expanse that a "compulsive writer" could fill with millions of words, a place where Aronowitz could tell his stories. He cleaned up his act, and got down to it. "The Blacklisted Journalist" was born.
Ten years later, sitting in his dark and detritus-filled apartment, Aronowitz, now 76, still writes almost every day, torrents of words preserving his rock-and-roll memories in cyber-amber. Some would argue the last thing the 1960s need is more documentation, more solipsistic, I-was-there-man reminiscences. But his Web site, and his self-published Bob Dylan and the Beatles: Volume One of the Blacklisted Journalist (AuthorHouse), a chunky paperback tome that collects the best of Aronowitz's writing from then and now, offer riotous and rambling time capsules, comprising detailed vignettes and told in a voice that's direct, disarming, and self-deprecating. It may or may not be true, as the book's promo materials proclaim, that FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO Bob Dylan and the Beatles, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!, but Aronowitz's anecdotes offer an inimitable inside look at the rock era's biggest players. (Next up, look for his "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine," a new book he says is timed to coincide with – and challenge the authenticity of – Kevin Spacey's forthcoming Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea.")
Aronowitz is no longer the bombastic bear of a man who can be seen in photographs hobnobbing with Dylan and Lennon. After years of drug abuse and an open-heart surgery, he seems to have shrunk. Enormous glasses enlarge his sleepy eyes. His posture and bearing are stooped and subdued. Bouts of phlebitis have him walking with a cane, and his voice is sometimes barely audible. But make no mistake: Al Aronowitz still has a voice. He's got stories to tell, and he's sure as hell not going to wait until he's dead to have them told. "My writing has gotta speak for itself," he says. "Too many people have judged me, rather than judge my work. I'm not Picasso. Maybe I'm a prick. I dunno. But this is my love of loves, this is my work. These are stories of the times. I think they're interesting. That's the job of a journalist. To make sense of the story. And express yourself."
I meet Aronowitz and his girlfriend, Ida, at his hulking brick apartment building on the north side of hardscrabble Elizabeth, N.J.. As we make our way slowly downstairs toward the exit, Ida pauses, remembering that she's left her purse in the apartment. A gentleman, Aronowitz trudges back toward the ancient elevator to retrieve it. When he returns, he deadpans like a Borscht Belt comedian: "I couldn't find your bag, so I grabbed one off the first lady I saw."
At IHOP, Aronowitz sits across from me in a red Rutgers cap and bright blue cowboy shirt and starts at the beginning. Born in 1928, he grew up the son of an Orthodox butcher in Bordentown and Roosevelt Park, N.J. "A lot of anti-Semitism," he says. "I remember when the marshal came to repossess my father's [delivery] truck. My mother was beating on his chest, screaming, 'Don't take the truck away!' I was two or three years old." He went to Rutgers and majored in journalism. "A total waste of time," he says. "I learned more working on the college paper than I ever did in journalism class." When he got out, in 1950, the Phi Beta Kappa grad landed a job as editor of the Daily Times in Lakewood, N.J. Then he moved on to the Newark Evening News, and finally across the river to the New York Post.
At first, he manned the Post's night desk, "rewriting the New York Times for the morning edition." But before long, he was doing feature pieces. One of his first big assignments had him on a plane to San Francisco to profile the Beat poets. Aronowitz says Post editor Paul Sann wanted a hatchet job on this bunch of "dumb-fuck pansies posing as poets." Instead, as he would time and again with other subjects, Aronowitz fell hard for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, awed by their libertine lifestyle, their burning fervor. His 12-part series that ran in 1960 fell just this side of hagiography.
Aronowitz says it was Kerouac's "On the Road" in particular that "changed my life in many ways. It was about real people. I wanna know these people. I had visions of being a journalist so I could get to know them! Which is what I did. I befriended them, and got to know them very well." It was also during his time with the Beats that Aronowitz first smoked dope. Not long after, the Saturday Evening Post enlisted him to write a long profile of a young folkie phenomenon who was drawing fawning crowds to Greenwich Village clubs. The moment he met Bob Dylan, Aronowitz was starstruck. "I felt honored," he writes in "Bob Dylan and the Beatles," "to hang out with this mumbling 22-year-old kid, skinny as a scarecrow and wound up as a telephone cord."
"I was supposed to write a piece on Paul Newman, but I lost interest," he recalls. "I never finished the piece because Dylan stole my interest. It got to the point where I was so hung up on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, side A, that I never got around to turning the record over and listening to side B. For months." The two struck up a relationship, and before long were friends. Aronowitz says Dylan penned "Mr. Tambourine Man" after listening to Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" over and over in his kitchen. ("All night long! I wanted to go to sleep!") He hung out in Woodstock with Dylan and his wife, Sara. Aronowitz even claims credit for persuading the folk hero to go electric. "Dylan was a folkie purist," he says with a grumble. "I hate purists. Purists are like fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is what's wrong with the world. People who refuse to budge an inch, no matter what! These red states. These Muslim maniacs. These Jewish fanatics. I said, 'Bob! Today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk classics!' That was my argument. And I was right. I know I was right."
If meeting Bob Dylan changed his life, Aronowitz says his role in helping Dylan meet the Beatles changed the course of American popular culture. Aronowitz was there at JFK in February 1964, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, when the Fab Four disembarked from their Pan-Am DC-8 to screaming, teary throngs. He knew right away what a cataclysmic moment it was. "As soon as I met the Beatles, man. The whole press corps were there, ready to shoot them down, with their poison pens pointed. But they got off the plane, and they immediately charmed the shit out of everybody."
The Beatles, of course, were swarmed by press, but Aronowitz had special access, afforded him by the fast friendship he struck up with their road manager, Neil Aspinall. (In one priceless detail in a Saturday Evening Post article full of them, Aronowitz spots Aspinall "expertly and flawlessly" forging the Beatles' signatures on programs meant for the queen.) So it was that this pop journalist was able to spirit Dylan into the Hotel Delmonico for a high summit meeting of the U.S.'s and the U.K.'s leading lights.
At first, Aronowitz recalls, the encounter was "very awkward, very demure. Nobody wanted to step on anybody's ego." So they tried to loosen up. Dylan wanted cheap red wine. The Beatles swilled their whisky and Coke, their pep pills in plastic bags on the nightstand. "They offered us pills, and we offered the Beatnik line," Aronowitz says. " 'Ah, pills are chemicals, man! You don't wanna put those in your body! Marijuana comes from the ground! It's natural!' " Still, the Liverpudlians were skeptical. Ringo was the guinea pig. Remembers Aronowitz in the book: " 'You try it,' John said."
"Soon, Ringo got the giggles," he writes. "In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing. ... We kept laughing at each other's laughter until every one of us had been laughed at."
In his cluttered apartment, Aronowitz reclines on an unmade bed with mismatched sheets, his wizened, stubbly face bathed eerily in the half-light of a single bulb. "It was all a big laugh," he says wearily, with a weak smile. "John's code word for getting stoned was 'Let's have a larf.' Then, later he called it 'Let's Al Aronowitz!' " He chuckles. "But reporters like to say it was Dylan who turned 'em on. I was the invisible man."
Still, Aronowitz was always keenly aware of the momentousness of the larf-fest he engineered. "I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I'd arranged," he writes. "I hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I'll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn't the whole world benefited? Look at all the beautiful music we have as a result! The Beatles' magic was in their sound. Bob's magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles' words got grittier, and Bob invented folk-rock."
But regrets? He's had a few. "If I had one stinking iota of junk-bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged," he writes. "But I guess I wasn't enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with which I had to deal. So now, I'm just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories for free on the Internet because I don't want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo."
Aronowitz admits that he idolized these megawatt luminaries, Dylan especially. Perhaps too much. "The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate," he calls him in his book. "I adored Dylan too much to see him through critical eyes. I was too impressed with his hipness and too humbled by his artistry." Dylan could have "charmed the bracelets from the tails of rattlesnakes. I found him to be one of the most beguiling men I've ever known. ... To be with Bob was always magical. Every word out of his mouth impressed me as a gem. ... The universe I'd see in Bob's eyes never stopped jolting me."
He's also honest enough to recognize that these starry-eyed musings might as well be the study-hall notebook scribblings of a seventh-grader. But he doesn't disown them. Dylan might sometimes have been a cold and abusive person, but Aronowitz was willing to subject himself to his barbs just to be in his presence. "I liked being friends, I liked hanging out with Dylan," he tells me. "I mean, my God! I was just crazy enough to think he was the new messiah! We all had that feeling about Dylan. We really revered him."
But as his own life began to unravel, more and more friends started to fall by the wayside. He doesn't discount his own failings as a contributing factor. "Bob is another one of those old friends who have written me off," he writes. "I don't blame him. I got to be pretty much of a wreck. I can also look back at myself being something of an asshole. But then, assholism seems to be a chronic condition with me. As hard as I try to cure myself, there's hardly a day goes by without me remembering an occasion as recently as the day before when I was an asshole again."
Aronowitz was also starting to question the life he was leading, this go-go go-between, surrounded by supernova rock stars more than a decade his junior. "My wife was dying, and I didn't want to stay up till four o'clock in the morning getting high and then come in the morning to write a column, then come home and do the shopping, and everything I had to do to raise a family," he says. "My wife was dying, and I had three young kids, and I'm hanging out with the Stones."
He wouldn't be for much longer. It wasn't until just before he was unceremoniously stripped of his column and his life started to disintegrate that Aronowitz even began to intuit that his own personality, brio and writing chops were making him a semi-celebrity in New York City. "I'm unaware of all this," he says, still incredulous. "I'm unaware how big a star this column is making me. They call me a living legend! I walk into a club" – he whispers behind a cupped hand – "Al Aronowitz is here!" Oblivious to his own renown, he was happy instead to surround himself with the glow of stars. "I worshipped these people. I recognized them as immortals, as giants, as icons." He was building his personality around others, measuring his self-worth by the caliber of those who kept him around. But "I liked that position," he says. "It gave me some self-esteem. Which I was terribly lacking. It never occurred to me that I was worth anything."
Back at Aronowitz's apartment, you'd hardly guess that the guy who lives here used to hobnob with rock-and-roll royalty. The place is a mess. "I never won any housekeeping awards. I never tried for any either," he says unapologetically. The shades are drawn; the only light comes from a single wan bulb and a blue-glowing old computer. He putters around this cramped and cluttered labyrinth of ancient filing cabinets, stacked to the ceiling with books and files and papers from decades of journalism. Tall shelves are crammed with vinyl albums, old reel-to-reels of interviews, and studio masters of the bands he used to manage. He's covered them over with wide sheets of tattered newspaper, because "people kept stealing my records." Tabletops are covered with stuff: plastic bags, cassette tapes, orange prescription bottles, browning bananas, a canister of Ovaltine, a box of matzo. A transistor radio sits on the bathroom floor. Above one of the shelves hangs a large color photograph of Aronowitz, a cigarette between his fingers, his face fringed with Brillo-pad hair and stretched with a wide-mouthed grin. "Yeah," he says flatly, looking away. "That's when I was smoking cocaine."
On his desk, half-obscured, is a CD of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," the singer's T-shirt emblazoned with the same motorcycle Aronowitz helped him buy. Propped against a shelf on the floor next to his chair is a vinyl record of the same album. A screensaver rolls slowly across his monitor, orange letters on black background: FUCK ... SHIT ... PISS ... CORRUPTION.
Discovering the Internet was "the thing that made me sane," Aronowitz says. Becoming a cyber journalist offered the chance for a fresh start, "allowed me to make an end run around the blacklist," to free himself of editors' restrictions and revisions. Aronowitz hates editors. Not only has nearly every one he's ever known been a know-it-all, corrupt, or both, but he suspects one once may have cuckolded him. And they make him curb his word count.
He thinks back on a conversation he had with Frank Sinatra in the mid 1960s, when Aronowitz was still with the Post. "I called him. He was at the Sands, getting drunk. He picked up the phone. 'Al, I got $7 million. I don't need the New York Post. What do I wanna talk to you for? I don't need you. I don't trust the editors.' Now I understand. I don't trust editors either. They make me look like an asshole. My whole career! All editors are arrogant. Every editor thinks they can do it better than you wrote it. They're all full of shit. Dummies. If they could write, they'd be writers."
"Bob Dylan and the Beatles" and "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine" are just volumes one and three in Aronowitz's self-published "Blacklisted Journalist" paperbacks. (Volume two was penned by poet/firebrand Amiri Baraka, who's been friends with Aronowitz since the Beat days, back when he was still LeRoi Jones.) Two more books are forthcoming. One, "Mick and Miles," remembers when Aronowitz introduced Jagger to Davis. The other, "For Adults Only," features risquÃ© pieces from six writers who pen guest columns on the "Blacklisted Journalist" Web site. Distribution for that one might pose a problem, however. "Some hick salesman in Indiana said it was pornographic. His mind is in the 18th century."
On Aronowitz's computer screen are two documents, works in progress, with just a few sentences and fragments at the top of each blank page. He's got plenty more stories to tell. Sure, he's no longer surrounded by A-list stars. He sits at home and writes, watches "The Price Is Right" and the Red Sox. ("I'm anti-Yankee. I don't reward arrogance, and that's all they have going for them.") He goes to the movies. He really liked "Ray." "I didn't see any difference between the Ray [Charles] I knew and the Ray on the screen."
One wonders if he misses the people he was once so close to. He used to be a confidant to Bob Dylan; has he ever thought of making an effort to get back in touch with the guy? Aronowitz just stares at me, bemused. "Why do I wanna?" He laughs mirthlessly. "What am I gonna ask him? He kicked me out!" He stares at me again, long and disconcertingly. "If he wants to be friends again, it's fine with me."
If not, Aronowitz is happy to keep telling tales. "Some writers say, 'I gotta challenge the reader!' I don't believe in challenging the reader," he says. "I believe in putting my arm around 'em and telling 'em a story."
Sitting in the gloaming of his tiny apartment, Aronowitz seems glad to have someone to tell his own story to. As I leave, he grabs a copy of his Bobby Darin book from a box full of them, and inscribes it with a shaky, old-man scrawl. "For a good LISTENER! – Al Aronowitz." With his Web site and his books, the rock-writing pioneer is doing for himself what he once relied on others, the stars he surrounded himself with, to do for him: ensuring he'll be remembered. "I was collecting giants," he says. "I was collecting immortal souls." Then, after a long pause, "I thought some of their immortality might fall on me."
It was a little more than two weeks ago that NBC News broadcast a piece of video from Fallujah that was both startling and sickening. U.S. Marines are seen walking into a mosque where several injured, unarmed Iraqi insurgents are lying on the floor. Although NBC censored the audio, we now know that one of the Marines excitedly said, "He's fucking faking he's dead. He's faking he's fucking dead." The Marine aims his rifle – and shoots the insurgent in the head.
For a few days, at least, the video clip – taken by freelance journalist Kevin Sites, a veteran war correspondent – seemed certain to become one of the signature images of the war in Iraq. And perhaps it will. An investigation is under way, and if and when the young Marine who pulled the trigger is publicly identified, the image may take its place in the pantheon of wartime horror. To this point, though, something odd has happened, or rather hasn't happened. Because so far, it seems, the clip is already fading from memory, and has not joined such terrible images as the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, or those of the American contractors who were butchered and mutilated in Fallujah a year and a half ago, or the heart-stopping photos of casualties, many of them civilian, on display at falluja.blogspot.com, or even the unseen but easily imagined execution of Margaret Hassan, killed in cold blood after a lifetime of helping the Iraqi people.
Why this should be is hard to say. But here's a guess: we know too much to let the clip stand alone, without context. In Susan Sontag's 2003 book on photography and war, "Regarding the Pain of Others," she writes that "to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. ... A photograph – or a filmed document available on television or the Internet – is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict." There was a time, perhaps, when Sontag's insight would have been regarded as a revelation. Today, though, it's commonplace. In introducing Sites's report on the Nov. 15 NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams said, "It illustrates how complex and confusing life can be on the front lines of this war," thus setting the stage for an ambiguous interpretation of video that appeared, on the surface, to be pretty unambiguous. Sites provided more context, reporting that American forces had been killed or injured by the booby-trapped bodies of dead insurgents, and that the Marine who shot the injured Iraqi had himself been shot in the face the day before.
Thus, rather than being cast as a symbol of all that's gone wrong in Iraq, the Marine has been treated almost as an object of pity. To be sure, that has not been universally the case. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for an investigation into whether the Marine may have committed a war crime. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, went so far as to say that "there is a prima facie war crime here that deserves court-martial." And yes, Arab news services such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, not to mention Web sites that spew flat-out propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi insurgency, have reportedly been showing the video constantly. But among the American media, even staunch anti-war critics have been subdued.
The reason, I suspect, is that Sontag's lesson was internalized a long time ago by a generation of Americans who grew up learning about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam, who blamed young American soldiers for a failed and immoral policy, and who later realized they were pointing the finger in the wrong direction. What that young Marine did in Fallujah was horrifying. But it didn't take place in a vacuum. Rather, it took place in the midst of days upon days of street-to-street fighting, of exhaustion, of fear, of split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. What happened in that mosque was a tragedy, but who among us could say that we wouldn't have done the same thing? The real tragedy is that a scared young man made a mistake, while there are no consequences for the far more serious mistakes committed by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al.
This is NOT to say that the Marine shouldn't be held accountable. What he did may not have been a war crime, and a court-martial seems pretty drastic for his spur-of-the-moment reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. (Indeed, according to the current U.S. News & World Report, unnamed Pentagon officials expect the Marine will be cleared of all charges.) But to argue that he should not be locked up in Leavenworth is not the same as saying that he did the right thing. Sites wrote a long, impassioned entry on his weblog, www.kevinsites.net, on Nov. 21, eight days after the shooting. Numerous reports have made clear Sites' empathy for the troops with whom he has been embedded. Yet what's been overlooked to some extent is the degree to which Sites, and those around him, understood that something had gone drastically wrong inside the mosque.
Sites wrote about the Marine coming up to him after the shooting and saying, "I didn't know, sir – I didn't know." Sites added, "The anger that seemed present just moments before turned to fear and dread." And he wrote that "observing all of this as an experienced war reporter who always bore in mind the dark perils of this conflict, even knowing the possibilities of mitigating circumstances – it appeared to me very plainly that something was not right. According to Lt. Col. Bob Miller, the rules of engagement in Fallujah required soldiers or Marines to determine hostile intent before using deadly force. I was not watching from a hundred feet away. I was in the same room. Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all." And for those who would argue that Sites should have, well, lost the video, he had this to say: "Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed the truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it."
These are the words of an honorable man pursuing an honorable course. Yet so twisted with rage are some of our so-called patriots that they have all but accused Sites of treason for telling the truth – the whole truth, complicated and contextual, explaining not just what the Marine did, but what he had been through before he did it. Sites makes it clear that the U.S. Marine Corps itself is anxious to find out what happened, to learn whether a breakdown in discipline and training had occurred that could place other Marines in danger. To some here at home, though, things look a lot simpler.
Take, for example, "Frank from Malden," who called The Howie Carr Show on WRKO Radio (AM 680) the day after Sites's report aired on NBC. Calling himself "a former Marine and very proud of it," Frank said, "I think this young gentleman should have got a medal for what he did." Then there was this: "I would think that the reporters in country should kind of be looking over their shoulder. Because if the reporters are going to put these kids in that situation, they may have some friendly fire there, you know?" An incredulous Carr asked, "What, do you think they're going to frag this guy the next time he goes out, this Kevin Sites?" Frank replied, "It could happen. That's the way it was. It could be again, you know?" Frank laughed and hung up. Carr seemed momentarily flustered; he then recovered and said that Sites "seems to be a real pro," and that he presumably could not have gotten his video out of Fallujah without military approval.
Yet Frank from Malden's point of view isn't all that unusual. In 1965, Morley Safer, then a young reporter for CBS News, accompanied some Marines to a group of Vietnamese villages known as Cam Ne. What Safer observed was the first televised American atrocity of the war. The Marines set fire to thatched huts, and threw hand grenades and fired flamethrowers down holes, killing the civilians who were cowering inside. It would have been even worse if Safer's South Vietnamese cameraman hadn't intervened. As described by David Halberstam in "The Powers That Be," CBS executives were deeply unhappy when they saw Safer's story, knowing – then as now – that they would be accused of being unpatriotic, of undermining the war effort, by putting the truth on the air. "They knew they had to go with it," Halberstam wrote. "It was not so much that they wanted to as that they simply could not fail to use it." And so they did. And so CBS president Frank Stanton was awakened the next day by a phone call from Lyndon Johnson, who told him, "Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag."
As we all know, to this day you can still find reasonably bright people who believe that it was the media that lost the war in Vietnam – that the United States never lost a battle, but it lost the larger fight because the media undermined morale and dissipated support for the effort. Well, it's true enough that we never lost a battle in Vietnam; nor are we likely ever to lose a battle in Iraq. But the dilemma then – and, one fears, the dilemma now – is that no matter how many battles we win, the war can't be won because it's based on false premises. How can we win a war that we're fighting on behalf of people who hate us and who want us to leave their country? In any case, covering up the truth is hardly the solution, then or now.
"I feel very strongly that everything should be shown," says Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald reporter who was embedded with the Army's Third Infantry Division in the spring of 2003. "In this particular case," Crittenden says of Sites, "he had a job which is very unambiguous. His job is to record what's going on. The military invited him there with full awareness – and I know, because I've spoken to many of the people involved with designing the program – that the embed will produce good, bad, and ugly. The military, in establishing this program, understood that there are going to be some bad days. I think they have always expressed a great deal of faith in the professionalism and fundamental goodness of American soldiers. You don't have a bunch of loose cannons running around out there. And they can trust their people to deal with this. I don't think that sense of trust that the military has on their own part or the trust of the American people has been violated by this incident. There's an investigation under way. The majority of people out there seem to understand the context in which this situation happened."
Context is vital, but it can also change, and it's never complete because everything can't be included. Another moment from Vietnam: in 1968, Eddie Adams photographed South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan at the very instant that he executed a Viet Cong fighter with one bullet to the head. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which seemed to encompass all the insanity and immorality of that war. Yet Adams, who died earlier this year, later came to see it quite differently. He got to know General Loan, and realized that the execution was perfectly justified; and he regretted that Loan's life was made much more difficult because of that infamous image.
"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths, you know, that's only one side," Adams told National Public Radio in 1998, shortly after Loan's death. "It's just a sad statement, you know, I think of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and ... all the blame is on this guy. I got to know him pretty well. I talked to him the last time about six months ago. He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while. And I talked to him on the phone, and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life, and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didn't want him to go out this way."
I asked Dirck Halstead, himself a former war photographer and an acquaintance of Adams, whether he could draw an analogy between Adams' experience and Sites'. Halstead, now the editor and publisher of a magazine called the Digital Journalist, responded by e-mail. "In general, photojournalists are like cops. They have pledged themselves to always do the right, ethical thing. However, we all have heard of countless police officers who have become traumatized as a result of having to shoot someone in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this comes with the turf," Halstead told me. "Kevin Sites was covering a battle, as a pool embed. His job was to record what was going on. He was as surprised as Adams was by what happened. He also, obviously, was conflicted and confused by what he had just shot. ... He clearly has bonded with the men he has been covering. This happened with most of the pool reporters and photojournalists who have covered the war. This makes it even more difficult, since he obviously feels he let his comrades down. But he has to keep in mind why he was there, and what his job was. I feel for him and want to express to him my respect for a job well done."
Adams only learned of the broader context of Nguyen Ngoc Loan's life later, after his photo had been seen around the world. Sites tried to offer what context he could in his original report – the exhaustion, the fear, the booby-trapped bodies, the death that lurked around every corner. But a photographer can, at best, help tell the story of what's happening just outside the range of the viewfinder. The broader context – the broadest context – remains elusive. On Nov. 17, NPR's Melissa Block interviewed an Al-Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout. The subject: why Al-Jazeera was running Sites' video on an almost-continuous loop, whereas it refused to show the execution of Margaret Hassan, a video that network officials have admitted is in their possession. Ballout told Block that "these atrocities of killing innocent people, especially people such as the late Mrs. Hassan, was really an outrage. There is a difference between that and when there is a whole army of 20,000 military people converging on an area in Fallujah." Block responded by asking whether Al-Jazeera was using a "double standard" in showing the Sites video but not the Hassan execution. Ballout didn't really have an answer.
Now, of course, the Hassan execution does not balance off the Fallujah mosque incident in any way, and the moral equation is complex. On the one hand, what happened to Hassan does not somehow justify the misbegotten war in which we are now embroiled. On the other hand, it is useful to remind ourselves – and it is obviously useful for the Arab world to remind itself – that what the Sites video documents is not the moral equivalent of shooting Margaret Hassan in the head. One was a split-second reaction to a confusing, possibly deadly situation. The other was an act of terror in the most literal sense – that is, it was the taking of an innocent life solely for the purpose of spreading terror. One was a tragic mistake. The other was pure evil. But though we should surely see both – as well as the bodies of the civilians who have died or been maimed by our arrogant act of liberation, as well as the beheadings and the Abu Ghraib images and everything else – we travel down a dangerous road when we use these images to try to justify. At best, they help us to understand, however imperfectly.
"The meaning of these pictures is not embedded in the video itself. What people think about this video is going to depend on what they think about the war," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University's journalism department, and who is a former war correspondent for ABC News, praises in-depth reportage, such as Dexter Filkins' Nov. 21 New York Times article on accompanying U.S. troops in Fallujah, for educating the public about the terrible consequences of urban warfare. "There has been a realistic picture presented of what these guys are up against," he says. "You read that stuff and you can understand what's going on over there, why anybody would pull the trigger first and ask questions later. Human beings have the blessed ability to make distinctions. We can distinguish between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. The reason we can do that is because of good reporting in each case."
The problem – the tragedy, really – is that though the images tell us much about the way the war is being conducted, they tell us little about the wisdom of the war, or even its ultimate cost. It says much about this war that we can see pictures of a Marine killing a wounded insurgent, of Iraqi inmates being tortured, and of atrocities committed against Americans and other Westerners by terrorists, yet we cannot see the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. That – as well as the additional suffering we've inflicted on the already-long-suffering people of Iraq – is the ultimate context.
When the new Senate storms Capitol Hill early next year, the narrow Republican majority of the past two years will disappear, to be replaced by a much wider Republican majority. Currently, the Senate comprises 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and an independent – Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, a former Republican who usually votes with the Democrats. Because of last week's election, the Senate will soon seat 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and Jeffords.
Who are these people? Unlike the House, where Republican members lead lives of near-anonymous fealty dictated by Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay, senators matter as individuals – not as just a voting bloc. There are moderate Republican senators, such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, of Maine; Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island; and Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania – who nearly got his head handed to him last week for daring to suggest that anti-choice judges might not pass muster. There are religious conservatives, such as Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah. And there is Jim Bunning, of Kentucky, who's in a class by himself: last week he was re-elected despite widespread reports that he has Alzheimer's disease, and even though two of his supporters had sneeringly suggested that his Democratic opponent was gay.
Seven new Republican senators were elected last week. Two are unremarkable. Mel Martinez, of Florida, was George W. Bush's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Despite a poor record on the environment, Martinez deserves some thanks from Democrats: he and the White House intimidated Congresswoman Katherine Harris (yes, that Katherine Harris) into not running for the Senate this year. In Georgia, Republican congressman Johnny Isakson will succeed Democratic senator Zell Miller, who's retiring. Isakson – a moderate who's pro-choice (except when he isn't) – may well be more a voice of reason than Miller has been. That said, Isakson's outburst earlier this year that Bush is "the best president the United States has ever had" was certainly embarrassing, if not nearly as embarrassing as Miller's red-faced rant at the Republican National Convention.
What remain are five genuine specimens of right-wing Republicanism. Keep an eye on these guys. They're dangerous.
1) Tom Coburn: Keeping us safe from condoms and the 'gay agenda'
Fresh from helping to save Oklahoma from the scourge of teenage lesbianism, Tom Coburn arrives in Washington with perhaps the most bizarre set of right-wing credentials of anyone in the Republican Class of 2004. A former three-term congressman who was swept into office 10 years ago on the coattails of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, Coburn – who succeeds retiring Republican senator Don Nickles – is an obstetrician possessed of an obsessive fascination with other people's sexuality.
In 2003, George W. Bush named Coburn to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. Coburn's very first act was to speak out against the one preventative behavior (other than abstinence) that actually works. "I will challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV," he said upon his appointment. Earlier, as a congressman, he had sought to force condom manufacturers to label their products as "ineffective" in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
But that doesn't begin to plumb the depths of Coburn's so-called thinking. In his successful Senate campaign against Democratic congressman Brad Carson, Coburn called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. That certainly gives new meaning to the term "pro-life." As a physician, Coburn himself performed abortions, although he says it was always to save the life of the woman. Tell it to the judge, Doc. Nor is that the only dissonant note from his career in medicine: Coburn was once accused of having sterilized a young woman without her permission. He says she had asked him to perform the surgery, though he conceded that he had lacked the written authorization that the law required.
In the 1990s Coburn criticized NBC for broadcasting Schindler's List, the Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust, charging that it would encourage "irresponsible sexual behavior." That particular outburst was so odd that even one of his ostensible allies, self-appointed morals czar Bill Bennett, felt compelled to label Coburn's remarks as "unfortunate and foolish." Coburn is also an outspoken opponent of the "gay agenda" in general and same-sex marriage in particular; as a member of Congress, he refused to allow the city of Washington to fund its program for domestic-partnership benefits.
Earlier this year, Coburn said that lesbianism is "so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl [at a time] go to the bathroom." Coburn's source: a campaign worker. He later said his remarks had been taken "out of context," whatever that was supposed to mean. His spokesman gamely insisted that Coburn was worried that "our kids are getting mixed messages about sexuality." Mixed-up, rather, if they've been listening to Coburn.
Sources: Salon, September 13, 2004; AlterNet, March 28 and October 13, 2004; the Associated Press, October 12, 2004.
2) Jim DeMint: 'The Family' values, homophobia, and tax chicanery
If Tom Coburn is #1 on our list of exotic senatorial specimens, South Carolina's Jim DeMint might qualify as #1A rather than #2. Congressman DeMint, who defeated Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in the campaign to succeed another retiring senator, Democrat Ernest Hollings, belongs to a secretive religious organization with anti-Semitic leanings, and is a tax-cut hypocrite and an outspoken homophobe to boot.
The decades-old religious group, best known for sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast, is generally known as "The Family," "The Foundation," or "The Fellowship." A magnet for high-ranking conservative Washingtonians, it is said to have supported some vicious Third World right-wing dictatorships over the years – as well as performing the occasional good deed, such as helping to foster the relationship between Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat. Members also reportedly believe that God's covenant with the Jews is broken, and that they are "the new chosen." DeMint is close enough to the inner circle to have lived, along with five other congressmen, in a million-dollar Capitol Hill apartment subsidized by "The Family."
During his campaign against Tenenbaum, though, DeMint's membership in this little-known group was far less of an issue than his mouth was. At a debate in October, DeMint said, "If a person wants to be publicly gay, they should not be teaching in the public schools." Even a local Christian Coalition official and DeMint supporter named Bette Cox said, "I wouldn't have said that. It's a civil rights issue with me. You can't cut off someone's civil rights." DeMint refused to apologize – although he did apologize for saying that unwed, pregnant women should not be allowed to teach either. And he declined to fire an aide who'd sent out an e-mail referring to "fags" and "dykes" (or, to be more precise, "dikes").
One of DeMint's key issues during the campaign was getting rid of the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent flat national sales tax. It's an idea that President Bush himself has been cozying up to in recent weeks. The simplicity of such a system is undeniably appealing, but, unless carefully designed, it would be the mother of all regressive taxes, biting deeply into the poor and the middle class for everything they buy. So it's pretty amusing to learn that DeMint is a serial tax scofflaw, repeatedly making late payments on his federal, state, and local taxes between 1987 and 2001.
If nothing else, a flat federal sales tax would prevent well-connected people from gaming the system. People such as Jim DeMint.
Sources: Harpers magazine, March 2003; the Associated Press, April 20, 2003; the Columbia State, October 4, 2004; 365Gay.com; Salon, October 7, 2004.
3) David Vitter: Putting young men and women in harm's way
The election of Louisiana congressman David Vitter to the Senate is an ominous sign of the problems facing the Democratic Party, especially in the South. Vitter won more than 50 percent in a multi-candidate election last Tuesday, thus avoiding a runoff next month. The retiring incumbent, John Breaux, is a Democrat who's conservative enough to inspire teeth-gnashing among liberals. But unlike Zell Miller, who these days sounds more Republican than Dick Cheney does, Breaux is a Democratic loyalist capable of pulling off the occasional bipartisan compromise. Vitter, though, is a straight-down-the-line ultraconservative.
According to rankings published by the National Journal, a nonpartisan political magazine, Vitter is the most conservative congressman elected to the Senate this year – more conservative than 87 percent of his peers. He has a 100 percent ranking from the National Right to Life Committee; a zero percent ranking from Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian civil rights organization; a zero percent ranking from the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; and an "A" from the National Rifle Association.
Vitter's opposition to reproductive choice is so unwavering that he has co-sponsored legislation to require doctors who prescribe RU-486 – a drug that, if used properly, can induce a safe, nonsurgical abortion – to have both the ability and the necessary equipment to perform a surgical abortion should one become necessary. As James Ridgeway observed in the Village Voice, "That's a little like asking a doctor who prescribes heart medicine to be able to do open-heart surgery, right there in the clinic."
Vitter was also responsible for inserting a provision into the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public high schools to supply the names and phone numbers of all juniors and seniors to military recruiters – an invasion of privacy that could have tragic consequences for impressionable, economically stressed young men and women. (To be fair, generous opt-out provisions are included.) When asked to explain his reasoning, Vitter said the previous nondisclosure policy "demonstrated an anti-military attitude that I thought was offensive."
Somehow, no right-wing success story is complete without an example of grotesque hypocrisy. So let the record show that, for several years now, Vitter's supporters have been denying the claims of a Louisiana prostitute that she'd had an 11-month affair with Vitter when he was a state legislator. For the record, we don't care whether the story is true or not. But you'd think the Christian Coalition, which gives him a 100 percent rating, and the Family Research Council, which grades him at 92 percent, would care quite a bit.
Sources: AlterNet, September 29, 2003; the Village Voice, March 27, 2001; Louisiana Weekly, December 29, 2003; National Journal, February 27, 2004. Interest-group rankings from Project Vote Smart.
4) Richard Burr: Corporate errand boy scoops up PAC money
North Carolina has come a long way since the days of Jesse Helms. Its Research Triangle is as sophisticated and well-educated as – well, as in any blue state. So it's only appropriate that John Edwards's successor in the Senate stand out as being somewhat different from his fellow Republican freshmen. To be sure, Congressman Richard Burr is as anti-choice, anti-gay, and pro-gun as the rest of them. But he comes from that strain of Republicanism more interested in sucking up to corporate interests than in joining hands with the godly.
How in the tank is Burr? With $2.4 million in donations, this distant relative of Aaron Burr received more money from political action committees than did any other Senate candidate this year. "The main people he looks out for and answers to are the large corporations. That is the most troubling thing about Richard Burr to me," says Berni Gaither, a North Carolina Democratic Party official. Democratic activist Hayes McNeil puts it more succinctly: "Burr's record in Congress looks like a whore's bed sheet."
The good life, Burr-style, can be awfully good indeed. In April 2002, the National Association of Broadcasters – the fine folks who brought you corporate media consolidation – flew Burr, first-class, to Las Vegas for its annual convention. The amenities included poolside drinks and a massage, although Burr reportedly reimbursed the association for his spa stay. "It's extremely valuable for members to get that overall snapshot of their particular industry," said Burr, who at the time was vice-chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "If not, we rely on everyone to come up here and tell us how things have changed."
North Carolina remains a place apart. Burr and his unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, were falling over each other to take credit for a federal buyout of the state's struggling tobacco farmers. But there is an area where Burr stands out: his contempt for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters has named Burr one of its "Dirty Dozen" (along with fellow freshmen senators-elect John Thune and Mel Martinez). The particulars: he supported President Bush on an energy bill provision protecting manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits over groundwater contamination; he voted six times against a ban on drilling for oil off North Carolina's Outer Banks; and he has opposed efforts to reduce mercury contamination and greenhouse-gas emissions.
"He has one of the worst environmental records on clean air and clean water in the U.S. Congress," says Mark Longabaugh, the league's political director. "That's one. Two, throughout his entire career he has shown a bias toward special interests, oil and gas or other polluters."
Sources: the Raleigh News & Observer, October 27, 2004; the Durham Independent Weekly, July 7, 2004; the Washington Post, March 11, 2003; Grist magazine, October 26, 2004; National Review Online, September 22, 2004.
5) John Thune: A simple-minded campaign of flag-waving and heterosexuality
Of all the freshmen Republican senators-elect, there is one celebrity – John Thune, of South Dakota, who knocked off Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. But though Thune, a former congressman, is an ultraconservative with ties to the religious right, he doesn't stand out for any particular policy outrage. Rather, Thune is a master of the sort of political cheap shot that excites the imaginations of those who like their symbolism both simple and stupid.
Take, for instance, a debate between Thune and Daschle on NBC's Meet the Press. Thune was agitated over something Daschle had said in March 2003, just before the war in Iraq began – that is, that "this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." Never mind that a) Daschle was speaking the truth, b) he had voted in favor of the war resolution and later backed the $87 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq and Afghanistan, and c) he was a veteran and Thune was not. Thune took the opportunity to accuse Daschle of something close to treason, saying, "What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops."
Or take a proposed constitutional amendment against flag-burning – a cause that you might have thought had gone out of style with George H.W. Bush way back in the 1980s. Not, apparently, in South Dakota. "Unfortunately, Senator Daschle has consistently voted against this amendment. My record on this is very clear," Thune said at an event in Rapid City featuring some three dozen veterans, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Don't you wish you'd been there?
Or, finally, take a radio ad that the Thune campaign broadcast this past summer that attempted to lump together Washington, Massachusetts, gay marriage, and Daschle in one unsavory stew. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," Thune intoned. "They have done it in Massachusetts, and they can do it here."
This is just ugly, nasty stuff. The intellectual dishonesty of it all is matched only by its sheer brazenness. By appealing to voters' fears and by demonizing anyone who would get in his way, Thune, unfortunately, demonstrated that he is well-qualified to join the Republican majority.
Sources: the Washington Post, September 20, 2004; the Rapid City Journal, South Dakota, September 22, 2004; Salon, September 30, 2004; the Advocate, July 16, 2004.
Tom Waits has worn a lot of hats in his 31 years of recording. Well, mostly that rumply fedora – the one that looks as if he'd picked it out of a dumpster behind a Salvation Army mission. But he's borne the mantles of bar-room poet, beatnik troubadour, lo-fi champion, and stumblebum sonic visionary with equal comfort and increasing success. Now add to those "protest singer."
"Real Gone" (Anti), which came out Oct. 5, is full of the ruminations on love, death and sin that have become his stock. But even Waits, who seems to have created his own universe both in the realm of his art and in the way he conducts business, appears to have been affected by the undercurrents of fear, violence and greed that now ripple through America. "Sins of the Father," with its broad images of destruction and doom, the spoiled-dreams ballad "Trampled Rose," and "Day After Tomorrow," a letter from a soldier to his sweetheart at home, all are distinct products of the post-Sept. 11 Bush era.
Of course, Waits isn't going Phil Ochs on us, and elsewhere on this odd-as-usual-sounding album, he introduces us to the residents of a gypsy circus and assorted denizens of the urban demi-monde. He also seems more in thrall of the late bluesman Howlin' Wolf than ever. Certainly Wolf, like the barbed-wire-throated hipster poet Lord Buckley, has always had some sway over the growling vocal tone Waits uses, but the tight-knit rhythmic interplay of Wolf's classic Chess albums has direct bearing on new tunes like "Don't Go into That Barn." Guitarist Marc Ribot, an occasional Waits accompanist since the mid 1980s, liberally quotes and pays tribute to Wolf's six-string foil Hubert Sumlin throughout Real Gone. And in case you thought Waits had exhausted his timekeeping arsenal after years of banging on chests of drawers, trash-can lids, and amplifier reverb boxes, well, he's got another instrument up his sleeve and in his soiled jacket: Tom Waits, human beatbox.
When Waits began his career, in 1973, with the album "Closing Time," he was in essence a modern variation on the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. Granted, his address on that songwriters' row was strewn with cigarette butts and empty bourbon bottles, but if you shuffled the trash aside, there was plenty of hope visible, especially in the beautiful "Ol' 55," which was later recorded by the Eagles. After a long spell that might be called his Bukowski period, Waits started really surprising his listeners in 1985 with "Rain Dogs" (Island), a sensitive, urban album full of sweet dreamers and sweet dreams along with bumpy little miracles of shuffling rhythm like "Clap Hands," an angular number about being shanghai'd that would make a good soundtrack to the pursuit sequences in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
There were brilliant albums in between, but perhaps the biggest surprise came in 1999 when his "Mule Variations" (Anti-/Epitaph) sold a million copies of its uneasy listening tales dipped in Delta mud and mania. Or maybe the shocker was seven years earlier, when "Bone Machine" (Island), which set its lyrics of lamplight burials and backwoods slayings to a near-industrial crunch that many Waits diehards pronounced unlistenable, won a Grammy.
The blend of beauty and evil in "Real Gone" makes it a logical successor to Waits's double-album blitz in 2002, when he released "Alice" and "Blood Money" (both on Anti-/Epitaph) simultaneously. Both of those discs were dark and tormented. In "Alice," Waits spun Lewis Carroll's obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he wrote "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," into an often-affecting ode to unrequited love. No easy task, that, but soft-centered tearjerkers like "Fish & Bird" resonated with the same undisguised sentimentality as the Waits standard "Tom Traubert's Blues" from '76's "Small Change" (Island). "Blood Money" was another crimson-drenched matter, full of croaking odes to Mammon packed with lies, lust, and murder.
"Real Gone" embraces both ends of that thematic spectrum and wastes no time raking muck. "Hoist That Rag," the second tune, comes slithering in on upright bass played by Primus's Les Claypool, and it sounds like the tale of a couple of lowlife mobsters – until we learn that they have the power to "heave and turn the world around." "At night I pray and clean my gun," a thug sings, also offering a concise depiction of George W. Bush's contradictory ethos. As for the "rag," it's likely wearing stars and stripes.
Waits slides into his warmest croon for "Sins of the Father," but the tone is equally strident as he indicts God, the Father, for His complicity in our bloody affairs of state, which put us "smack dab in the middle of a dirty lie/The star-spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powered wig." "Trampled Rose" is more delicate all around, with Waits summoning the memory of gentle metaphorical dreams of the days when Americans shared a vision of their nation as an influence for good – a beacon of diplomacy, leadership, hope, and justice at home and abroad.
The most poignant of these politically loaded numbers is "Day After Tomorrow." Waits uses a hoary songwriter's device, a young soldier's letter home, but he gets so deep inside the character that you're not likely to remain untouched. The letter speaks of missing the banality of raking leaves and shoveling snow at home in Rockford, Ill., as the music gently hums along. "I still believe there's gold at the end of the world," Waits sings in a cottony melody as the solider hangs onto his ideals while waiting for the airplane that will wing him back to the U.S. in two days. But he also wearily reports that "they fill us full of lies, everyone buys/About what it means to be a solider/I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel/About all the blood that's been spilled." He goes on, "You can't deny, the other side don't want to die any more than we do/What I'm trying to say is don't they pray to the same God that we do?/And tell me how does God choose/Whose prayers to refuse." His conclusion: "I am not fighting for justice/I am not fighting for freedom/I am fighting for my life and another day in the world/Here I just do what I've been told/We're just gravel on the road/And only the lucky ones come home."
There's more to "Real Gone" than reflections on our current collective predicament. Fans of Waits the nighthawk will dig his detailed portrait of the twisted soap-opera characters who populate his "Circus," like Horse Face Ethel and her Marvelous Pigs and one-eyed Myra, the ostrich trainer. And "Metropolitan Glide" assembles the motliest crew of shady partiers since the Chicago blues songwriter Willie Dixon first pitched his "Wang Dang Doodle." The disc opens with a DJ cutting and Waits whipping his wind before raggedly piping into a rhythmic chuff and grind. Elsewhere, flashes of Jamaican rocksteady and Latin beats and melodies seep into the stitching of this singular songsmith to fit his quirky design.
But the warm blood of the blues give plenty of these songs their pulse, and in particular the stylings of Howlin' Wolf. "Shake It" is a refraction of Wolf's "Shake for Me," and the intense rhythmic interplay of Waits's musicians, who include his long-time accompanist Larry Taylor playing most of the bass lines, recalls the brazen, seamless chug of Wolf's greatest ensemble on the 1962 "Rocking Chair" Chess album. "Don't Go into That Barn" even lifts the guitar riff from Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious," but by the time that rumbles in, almost halfway through the 16-song album, it's no surprise. Marc Ribot is saluting Hubert Sumlin, that riff's inventor, right from the start – when he's not making like a Latin king or a '50s jazzbo.
Ribot deserves a lot of credit. Sumlin, who is currently recovering from a heart attack and stroke, is not an easy musician to emulate. His 1950s and early 1960s performances with Wolf were decades ahead of their time, full of slippery zinging sounds, extreme note bending, key-defying solos, and terse riffs that yanked strings in all directions. It's fair to say Sumlin remained in a league of his own until the late Robert Quine came along in the late 1970s to make similarly idiosyncratic statements supporting punk poet Richard Hell in his band the Voidoids and, later, Lou Reed.
That kind of idiosyncrasy possessed by Waits, Wolf, and Sumlin is a mark of greatness. No matter what source, style, and predecessors such artists draw upon, in the end, they always sound like themselves. And in that way they bare a part of their souls – which in turn allows us to see and to feel a little bit more of our own.
New Hampshire – Forget the Bush twins and the Kerry girls. Put Teresa and Laura out of your mind. The most intriguing woman of this election season may well turn out to be Doris Haddock, the 94-year-old New Hampsherite better known as Granny D.
The nonagenarian became a neo-populist folk hero back in 1999, when she walked from Pasadena, California, to Washington, DC, to champion campaign-finance reform. Now she's running for U.S. Senate in the Granite State. Her mission: unseating popular Republican incumbent Judd Gregg.
Haddock, who was something of a press darling during her cross-country trek, has yet to reclaim the media spotlight. There have been no The Daily Show appearances, no chats with Dave or Conan – at least, not yet. But Haddock has the potential to serve as a sort of Democratic secret weapon. After all, she's a cute old lady who dispenses devastating takedowns of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. And with the recent addition to her campaign of Joe Trippi – who presided over Howard Dean's improbable ascent last year and is aiding Haddock as a consultant on a pro bono basis – Haddock's chances of waging a meaningful battle on behalf of the Democratic Party have greatly improved.
But while the potential for a funky insurgency is undeniable – just think of all those disenfranchised Deaniacs at the University of New Hampshire who will be desperate for something to do this fall – the reality is that Haddock faces long odds. Gregg, a two-term incumbent, previously served as governor and enjoys broad support throughout the state. Democratic state senator Burt Cohen planned to challenge Gregg in this year's general election, but no one really gave him much of a chance, either. When Cohen exited the race after his campaign manager absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, it left a vacuum only Haddock was willing to fill. "It's like running against Ted Kennedy," says PoliticsNH.com's James Pindell of Haddock's challenge.
Then there's the delicate matter of Haddock's nine-plus decades – her pledge to serve only one term notwithstanding. Haddock is a charismatic woman who gives a mean stump speech. In her interactions with the public, she inspires protectiveness, reverence, and general delight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are vulnerable to Haddock's charms as well; both Jimmy Carter and John McCain have lauded her as a Great American. But while Haddock is lucid and energetic, her age is impossible to ignore. Her skin, etched with a multitude of deep lines, resembles fine but very worn leather. When she speaks in public, her voice is strong, but in one-on-one conversation she is much quieter, pausing often to process questions or track down elusive words. When Haddock walks – and she plans to walk more than 200 miles between now and November to bring her message to the Granite State's voters – she does so with the trademark stoop of the very old, leaning toward the earth, breathing heavily from emphysema-afflicted lungs, and periodically clutching her aching back as she strides ahead. Yes, Haddock is spry. But she's 94 years old.
Given her age and her competition – as well as her seeming lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry (more on that later) – the true nature of Haddock's quest remains unclear. Is she a Democratic asset waiting to be tapped? An amusing novelty candidate, a la Fred Tuttle? Or, in a worst-case scenario, a worrisome liability in a very important election year? With Election Day less than three months away, no one – not even Haddock herself – seems entirely sure.
Haddock's campaign-kickoff speech last Thursday morning, which she delivered in the middle of Portsmouth's Market Square, felt like an outtake from an old black-and-white film. In her youth, before she became a wife, mother, and anti-hydrogen-bomb activist, Haddock studied public speaking at Emerson College, and her oratory is still marked by aspirated T's, dramatic cadences, and an upper-crusty, pseudo-British accent.
This style may be dated, but it also lends old-newsreel drama to her words – and the words she uses in calling for national health care, criticizing the war in Iraq, and railing against corporate domination of politics are often compelling. "There are many people who are doubtful that a 94-year-old woman can get from here to the U.S. Senate, but there are good reasons to think this campaign will work – and I am not in the habit of losing," Haddock declared. "Democracy cannot be hired out. There is too much power involved, and it corrupts absolutely if we, the common people, do not manage it ourselves with a humble spirit and a willingness to cast our own self-interest into oblivion.... If our choice is between a strip-searched Fortress America and, on the other hand, the beautiful world we all long for, what is keeping us from making the beautiful choice? Is it the distortions of the political system? The special interests? The selfish posturing of people who call themselves leaders but who, in fact, only take up valuable space at a critical time in the world's history? Well, let us joyfully roll over them."
The picture of Doris Haddock that emerges when you spend time with her resembles the one presented in her book, "Granny D: You're Never Too Old To Raise a Little Hell" (Villard, 2003) – that of a woman who, despite her age and diminutive stature, knows what she wants, usually gets it, and is not to be trifled with. For example, after pondering campaign-finance reform with a group of friends in her hometown of Dublin, New Hampshire, Haddock – who was recently widowed and also mourning the death of a close friend – undertook her epic 1999 walk to help make the next stage of her life meaningful.
The truth is, though, that Haddock had to be cajoled into running for Senate. Five hours and one five-mile walk after her campaign kickoff, and fresh from a restorative nap, Haddock sits in the lush back yard of a Portsmouth supporter and tells me how she came to enter the race. Earlier this year, she was on the road, registering voters in battleground states, when fatigue prompted her to return to Dublin for a few days. While she was there, Cohen dropped out of the race at the last minute, leaving prospective replacements precious little time to step in.
"My son came to me one morning at 6:30," Haddock recalls. "He had been listening to the radio, and he said, 'How would you like to run for the Senate?' I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' He said, 'No, but poor Dan [sic] Cohen has tried to resign, and you've got until 5:30 tonight to decide whether or not you want to do it.' And I said, 'Well, I don't want to do it. I'm not qualified. I'm not ready for it. I mean, at 94 – that's crazy.' And he said, 'Well, it would give you a chance to have a platform – you could try, you might not win, but at least you would be able to talk about what your love is, and that you would not have it any other way.' So I said, 'Gee, I hadn't thought about that. That's true.'" Next came a hastily arranged meeting with state Democratic Party officials, in which Haddock promised she'd fight to win and vowed to support John Kerry (she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, but now says she regrets doing so). By the end of the day, Haddock – whose experience as an office-holder has been limited to a stint on Dublin's town-planning board – was a freshly minted Senate candidate.
As her self-deprecatory tone suggests, Haddock is not a boastful woman. Because her modesty comes across as genuine, it is endearing, and it could serve her well if she embraces the role of anti-Bush spokesperson this fall. Too many iconic figures on the left – and since her legendary trek, that is what she has become – argue with a grim earnestness that rallies the faithful but can be off-putting to undecided voters. In contrast, Haddock has a lighter touch, and an appealing willingness to consider alternate points of view.
Sometimes, though, she takes this willingness too far. While Haddock napped, I discussed her candidacy with former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, a Republican known for his bipartisan approach. He was not impressed. "People in New Hampshire aren't going to look at Doris Haddock as someone who has the kind of background, either legislatively or as an executive, to hold a Senate seat," Rudman said. "The only thing this lady is known for is walking around the country on behalf of campaign-finance reform. I commend her for that, but it's not enough to be a U.S. Senator."
When I told Haddock of Rudman's comments, she was surprisingly concordant. Instead of assuming her anti-special-interest stance and delivering a quick rebuttal – "Qualifications mean squat if you've sold your soul to corporate donors!" – Haddock accepted Rudman's premise. "I don't blame him in the least!" she said. "I think a lot of people will think that. A lot of people would say, 'Why would we put in a woman when we have a substantial man who has good standing in several committees?'" (Gregg chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and sits on the Appropriations and Budget Committees.) Haddock then spent several minutes detailing her business background – noting, for example, that in two decades working at Manchester's Bee Bee Shoe Company, she had managed employees, designed footwear, and priced the company line. Like many older people, Haddock seemed to have difficulty escaping the pull of the past and resurfacing in the present as she spoke. But most older people are not waging first-time Senate campaigns.
It's going too far to suggest that missteps like this may seriously harm Haddock, for the simple reason that – even if she were perpetually on point and aggressive – her chances of ousting Gregg are minuscule. In a recent University of New Hampshire poll, Gregg enjoyed a 65 percent to 20 percent lead over Haddock; while 19 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of her, 68 percent said they didn't know enough about her to pass judgment. Even Haddock's confidant, Dennis Burke – who says the Haddock campaign will paint Gregg as a dependable ally of George W. Bush – admits the Republican senator will be difficult to demonize. "He's not a knee-jerk neocon," Burke says of Gregg. (Gregg himself did not respond to a request for comment.)
The implications of Haddock's run go beyond her particular race, however. In 2000, Bush won New Hampshire by approximately 7000 votes; had Al Gore captured the state's four electoral votes, he would be president today. Currently, Bush and Kerry are running close in New Hampshire. Some observers think that, when the New Hampshire Democratic Party traded Burke for Haddock, Kerry's chances in New Hampshire may have taken a slight but significant hit. "Burt Cohen, at the time he left the campaign, had about 20 staffers signing up voters, canvassing neighborhoods, getting out a Democratic message that reinforced John Kerry's vision," says NHPolitics.com's Pindell. "Now you have a campaign run out of one house in a small southwestern town of New Hampshire with a few volunteers and now, finally, some paid staff.... The only argument I've heard that Haddock can help Kerry is that she'll siphon off Ralph Nader supporters to vote [for Kerry]. The problem is, she's done absolutely nothing to bring these people into the Democratic Party."
Factor in Haddock's tepid feelings about Kerry, and the situation becomes even more worrisome for Democrats. Haddock was an enthusiastic supporter of Dennis Kucinich – whom she describes as the "wave of the future" – and Kucinich-campaign veterans have filled key positions on her staff. She is less excited by Kerry. "I think Kerry is going to be a good president," Haddock says of the Democratic nominee. "He understands the man on the street, I believe, and so I think that he will be a good interim." A glowing endorsement it is not.
Yet Joe Trippi rejects the idea that Haddock's candidacy could hurt Kerry. "The great unifying force in the Democratic Party is George Bush," Trippi says. "From the Democratic Leadership Council to the Dean folks, we're all united. I know Doris supports Kerry." And, for good measure, Trippi insists Haddock has a fighting chance this fall. "The only way Gregg can be beat is by somebody that's different," he says. "Somebody who isn't looking over her shoulder worrying about being re-elected, who isn't going to look at every single vote in the Senate and how to reward her supporters, but is going to do what every senator should do, which is go there and change a busted and corrupted system. Granny D walked the entire country trying to do that. There's no other motive for her than to go and effect change. She's as real a shot as anybody's going to get at sending somebody to Washington who'll be dedicated to changing things."
Haddock herself doesn't seem so sure. Sitting in her supporter's back yard, I asked Haddock to assess her chances against Gregg. "I'm going to beat him. I'm going to beat him!" she replied. Then a hint of doubt crept in: "I'm going to work to beat him; I may not do it, but I certainly expect that I have a possibility of it, or I wouldn't be wasting my time." Then, still more doubt: "Although I guess maybe that's not entirely true, because I do have this chance to talk about public funding [of elections]. And I want to educate the people in New Hampshire about what it means and what it would be like."
Considering her advanced age and the novelty of what she's experiencing, it's understandable that Haddock would be unsure what to make of her own campaign. But time is short. For the sake of the nation's Democrats, now would be a good time for Haddock and her inner circle to decide what, exactly, the character of her candidacy is going to be.
An emerging generation of young, progressive Democrats is networking, brainstorming, and organizing to fill a gap in liberal politics. Because the Democratic Party has long failed to harness their energy, these young people are trying – with the help of several new and extant organizations – to channel it themselves by tapping into their own resources and using the tools of their generation. Their goal? To help build a stronger base and revitalize the infrastructure that has left the party stagnant and struggling against conservative opponents.
Many of the major players in this developing movement were in Boston during last week's Democratic National Convention, and they had more than John Kerry on their minds. Like all Democrats, they know that winning the election this November is essential. These up-and-comers are staunch Kerry supporters, dedicated to getting George W. Bush out of office. But they have identified a weak spot in the party, and to fix it requires a much more farsighted approach than the next-election focus Democrats have held on to for years.
Long-term investment in the party's younger base, missing until now (at least in concentrated form), is a vital part of renovating the Democratic strategy, they say. And a well-organized infrastructure – nuts-and-bolts stuff like fundraising, media communication, candidate training, voter mobilization, and grassroots activism – is imperative to winning back not only the White House in 2004, but the House, the Senate, and state governments (Republicans control four more legislatures and six more governorships than Democrats do) over the next 15 to 20 years.
"The '90s was a period when the party really modernized our message," says New Democrat Network (NDN) president Simon Rosenberg, referring to the centrist rhetoric of the Clinton administration. "What's happening now is that we're modernizing our politics. It's going to make us stronger."
Rosenberg's organization is not a new one – the NDN has been around since the 1980s. Other groups, like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, also focus on revamping the party's inner workings. But in a May speech, Rosenberg acknowledged that to tackle the challenge comprehensively requires "a new generation of progressive leadership – entrepreneurs, investors, intellectuals, and political leaders."
A major problem, however, is that the Republicans have been cultivating the younger generation for years, which is how they managed to capture both houses of Congress and (for 16 of the past 24 years) the White House in the first place. The need for this strategy has its roots in the 1950s, when conservatives found themselves losing relevance, ground, and influence in the national debate. During the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the Nixon administration's Watergate crisis, Democrats held as many as 70 percent of the seats in the country's state legislatures; from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Around 30 years ago, however, GOP right-wingers kicked into high gear on a mission to grow their party, and they started small, focusing on state races and investing serious time and money.
"They were out of power for a really long time," Rosenberg says. "They set out in a very strategic way, in a very long time-horizon, to try to change the future of the country." He calls the conservative movement an "information-age Tammany Hall," a reference to the heavy-handed (and occasionally corrupt) Democratic political machine that dominated New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Meanwhile, "Democrats never did it," says Joe Trippi, the man behind former presidential candidate Howard Dean's rocket-like primary-campaign rise. Its failure to establish a young-voter-outreach organization has put the party at a disadvantage, he says. Now, however, technology has given liberals the chance to catch up by channeling the combined power of the Internet and the generation that grew up with it.
"If information is power and the Internet is distributing information democratically to anyone who has the 'Net, then the Internet is not distributing information anymore, it's distributing power," Trippi said at a DNC networking session for young progressives. "There is only one hope for our democracy, and I believe this fervently," he told the crowd of about 40 young professionals. "It's you and the 'Net."
But when that session broke up into small discussion groups focused on particular areas (such as fundraising, media, and grassroots training), and the young men and women started sharing ideas and strategies, it became clear that they didn't need to be told how valuable they are. "They've figured out if they want to change things, they have to participate – and they are," Trippi says.
Indeed, the ambitious leaders behind new organizations like 2020 Democrats, the Center for Progressive Leadership, the Campaign for a National Majority, and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century know what is missing from the party they support and what they can provide. Taken together, these groups address a broad spectrum of issues and counter similar efforts from the other side of the aisle. Their focus goes beyond the conventional young-activist age range of 18 to 24 to encompass people in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s. They're in college and graduate school, working their first jobs, starting families. And, at the convention last week, they showed up to offer their suggestions for a Democratic resurgence.
Take the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), created in 2003 to recruit and train what regional coordinator David Zipper, 26, calls progressive "change-makers" – a farm team of rising leaders ranging from candidates to campaign operatives. Many areas of the country have liberal activists and operatives who encourage potential candidates to run in municipal elections for city-council or school-board seats. Later in a candidate's career, the state Democratic Party itself, or outside organizations like the single-issue-oriented EMILY's List, will often support primary winners in larger elections. But the CPL has identified a gap during the time between those two races, says Zipper – the several years a progressive might spend "dabbling in politics, deciding if you want to be a candidate."
"We don't have any national leadership-development programs that are taking progressive leaders and providing them with the tools they need," Zipper says. The tools he's referring to – mentoring, help with fundraising, skill coaching – may seem like campaign common sense. But they are complicated, labor-intensive, and hard to come by. "That process of seasoning campaign staff ... is just extremely important and often overlooked," says Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based conservative think tank. "B-team" members who start young and build a base of political knowledge often grow up to be party leaders, she says, citing the Democrats' Terry McAuliffe or the Republicans' Ed Gillespie.
The Democrats, however, have done little to nurture budding talent. "We have not, as a party, focused on building a farm team," acknowledges 34-year-old Kelly Young, executive director of 21st Century Democrats, a group focused on giving candidates grassroots support to build name recognition and gain experience in running local campaigns. "Everyone is recognizing that what we've done in the past hasn't been enough."
The conservative Leadership Institute, on the other hand, has spent 23 years and millions of dollars developing those services. On its Web site, the Arlington, Virginia-based institute says its mission is "to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in the public policy process." The organization offers courses in areas like broadcast journalism, campus elections, or Internet activism, taught by activists like Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Republican senator Mitch McConnell. "[Conservatives] developed this when their back was against the wall," Zipper says. "We've never had our back against the wall until now." But today, it's "readily apparent how much ground we've lost."
One of the ways liberals hope to regain that ground is by following the conservative model of running and financially supporting candidates in local races. The Campaign for a National Majority (CNM), spearheaded by Harvard Law School students Michael Fertik and Daniel Richenthal, aims to accomplish just that – with the added bonus of involving young people in the process. The group began about a year and a half ago, when Fertik, 25, and Richenthal, 27, recognized the absence of Democratic efforts to reach out to young, professional liberals. When they tapped into their contacts from college, work, and law school, they ended up with a list of people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to get involved but didn't have the time to research candidates or the money to feel they were making a real difference. So, Fertik says, he and Richenthal decided to "find out where they can have impact with that smaller amount of money" – a message reminiscent of Howard Dean's "$100 revolution."
As a result, they've chosen two 2004 elections, one in Texas and one in Iowa, where they think fundraising help will make the most difference. Fertik estimates that CNM will raise several thousand dollars in bundled contributions from its young donors to disperse to the two candidates – David Leibowitz in Texas and Jeff Danielson in Iowa. Like the conservative Club for Growth, which advises potential donors on which candidates to support, CNM eliminates the time-consuming task of identifying where dollars can have the greatest impact. In 2006, Fertik hopes to raise $10,000; the goal is "not to get too big too fast" because "the way to be the most effective is to pick a limited number of candidates each time," and no race is too minor. With any luck, candidates who win will move up the pipeline to bigger things. "On both sides of the aisle, a lot of rising stars start at the state level," says Richenthal. Helping a candidate win a municipal election might not be that glamorous, Fertik admits, but "it'll be sexy" as soon as that candidate decides to run for governor or Congress and helps tip the power scale back toward Democrats.
It's easy to see how these new organizations fit together in a long-term pattern: In a few years, one could imagine candidates that have gone through leadership training at the Center for Progressive Leadership getting financial backing from the Campaign for a National Majority. The New Democrat Network and 21st Century Democrats have similar candidate-endorsement programs, while 2020 Democrats, a one-year-old group formed as a vehicle for young people to discuss and influence long-term party policies, is working to involve and promote new thinkers in the party. And that's not counting the many nonpartisan organizations aimed at increasing political participation. "The whole point is to bring in new people," Fertik says of the smorgasbord of organizations. "We're not staking out turf." Young, of 21st Century Democrats, agrees: "There really has been unprecedented levels of cooperation."
These efforts are complemented by updated voter-mobilization campaigns created to address a variety of concerns. When people start to vote, they tend to think of themselves as members of the party they vote for, Trippi points out. "These people are going to be involved for a long time." So it makes sense that several groups are starting to think creatively about reaching out to young voters. It makes even more sense when you look at statistics: According to the US Census Bureau, only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds and 50 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds voted in the last presidential election – the two worst showings among all demographic groups.
To counteract this trend, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party, the Young Democrats of America (YDA), is using a combination of strategies to reach as many people as possible. For less political voters, it holds club nights where DJs talk about issues and candidates; in swing states (YDA is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Wisconsin), it joined five other organizations to form the Youth Voter Alliance. All these groups concentrate their resources on increasing youth registration and turnout.
However, even the YDA admits that its party has somewhat neglected the youth element. "We're definitely far behind," admits Jane Fleming, the group's spokesman. The disparity has ranged from mentoring to fundraising – in 2002, the College Republicans had $4 million to spend on mobilization, compared to the YDA's $1 million.
"There's a mix of science and strategy," says Young. She emphasizes the "less sexy part of the process" (her organization makes sure to maintain contact with people in the period between registration and Election Day) that feeds into the rest of the pipeline – those who vote are more likely to become active in politics, and then to run for office, and so on. "It's a winning strategy," she says, noting that the Republicans' 1994 congressional takeover was really the result of grassroots efforts reaching back 15 years.
"We have the patience to watch change unfold over a long period of time," says Josh Green, co-founder of 2020 Democrats. The challenge of revitalizing the party, then, will be not just to make use of all new resources, both human and technological – youth energy, organizations, and the Internet – but also to dominate them, particularly the latter, to disseminate the Democratic message and bring more people into the fold. And there's no one better positioned to do so than young people – it's "their tool, their language," says Trippi.
"There's no question we have to build it," Rosenberg says of the party's overall structure. "I don't know exactly what it's going to look like in 10 to 15 years." But if things continue on their current trajectory, the party's horizon should stretch ever farther.
Progressive Democrats were out in full force on Thursday afternoon – the final day of the Democratic National Convention – at their own "shadow" convention, held across the Charles River, at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, in Cambridge. The three-day-long rallying effort, dubbed "Take Back America," had made headlines on Tuesday, when more than 1000 people turned out for pep speeches delivered by the two rock stars of the left wing of the party – former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore.
On Thursday, by contrast, the scene was far more subdued. The afternoon session, "Organizing to Take Back America," offered up the nuts-and-bolts of good grassroots action to several hundred loyal progressives. Leaders of the well-heeled political groups registering and mobilizing voters nationwide – from America Coming Together to the Campaign for America's Future (which sponsored the shadow convention) – expounded on the secrets to their voter-mobilization strategies, as well as a few election predictions for the 2004 presidential race. The general consensus among them? Never before has there been a more cohesive, more effective get-out-the-vote effort from the left. Indeed, they optimistically conclude that progressives (some 20 million Americans) represent the constituency that will lead the John Kerry and the Democratic Party to victory.
But the most interesting (and unusual) part of the panel came with the appearance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a veteran of the progressive movement. I had attended the session specifically to hear Jackson. But when he ascended the podium, I had a hard time discerning his message. He gave a rambling, off-the-cuff speech that covered such disparate topics as the Iraq war, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in the 2000 elections, the ongoing civil-rights struggle, and the use of "liberal" as a dirty word. Suffice it to say, Jackson's speech lacked any real focus and no connective tissue. But he did manage to spit out a fair share of juicy sound bites. Some of them included:
o "There cannot be a monochromatic progressive movement in this country."
o Progressives are "heavy in the thought department, but have no power shaft. To get from here to California is hard to do without an airplane."
o "In an environment of stolen and frozen votes [a reference to Florida in 2000], the Bush administration has now suggested the idea of suspending the elections. What if they find bin Laden suddenly on October 31. Or on Halloween. Will they say we need to suspend the elections? You might say to me, 'That's absurd.' But is it? ...I'd say we're operating under a real cloud over the integrity of our voting ability."
o "We can win this election and still lose. If our votes count, we can vote in a civilized government. If they don't, we can't."
o "When Kerry wins, the anti-war movement will get bigger by the day."
o "The power we seek doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up, from people like you.... The people's movement made Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton make the right choices."
o "I want the Democrats to get some definition of who they are. I'm not going to run away from being called a liberal. America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea!"
Whatever Jackson said, he fired up the progressives in the audience, all of whom responded with a rousing standing ovation. Now, apparently, they're ready to go back to work.