In 1973, when Richard Mellon Scaife and Joseph Coors kicked together some seed money to start the Heritage Foundation, the Democrats held the Senate and had a 50-seat majority in the House. As progressives are starting to understand, the funding, planning, and coordination of the conservative movement has led to tremendous success in elections and government policy. But another arena of ideological competition has gone largely beneath the radar. An asymmetric political war is raging at universities across the country, and once again conservatives are running circles around progressives.
The campus Left, which is still organized for the most part by students and community activists, increasingly finds itself facing off against seasoned conservative strategists. And while progressive student groups are mostly self-funded, by the mid-1990s roughly $20 million dollars were being pumped into the campus Right annually, according to People for the American Way.
That money and expertise are directed at four distinct goals: training conservative campus activists; supporting right-wing student publications; indoctrinating the next generation of culture warriors; and demonstrating the liberal academic "bias" that justifies many conservatives' reflexive anti-intellectualism.
Morton Blackwell, the treasurer of Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation, understands the value of those efforts. The long-time GOP activist and one-time Reagan advisor has been fighting the campus wars for four decades. Currently, he's president of the Leadership Institute, which trains, supports and does public relations for 213 conservative student groups nationwide. If you want to fight the Left on your campus, the Leadership Institute is one-stop shopping they'll provide you with conservative guest speakers, help starting a conservative newspaper, and training in how to win campus elections.
Young America's Foundation (YAF), like Heritage, is another shop started in the 1970s with Scaife seed money. According to Insight magazine, "the Foundation organizes so many programs on so many campuses that it's difficult to find a [young] conservative activist" who hasn't been associated with its activities.
Those include the National Conservative Student Conference, where this year's speakers included ABC News' John Stossel, Alabama's Judge Roy Moore and Reagan era paleo-cons Edwin Meese and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. For the most active student organizers, YAF also has a rewards program: if you work really hard "fighting the Left on campus," you can visit the Reagan Ranch for "an immersive themed' weekend aimed at getting a chance to live as Reagan did..."
These organizations, along with others like the National Association of Scholars and Students for Academic Freedom, serve as ready sources of materials, skills and support for young conservative activists. What it adds up to is that while progressive students organize around a multitude of specific issues like sweatshop labor or affirmative action, conservatives have launched a coordinated, nationwide movement with a single goal: defeating campus liberalism itself.
The media and the message
One of the bulwarks of that movement has been the creation of a rtight-wing college media. The effort has been led by YAF's National Journalism Center, which "trains scores of students every year in the skills of press work, and assigns them internships [with] cooperating media locations" like the Washington Times .
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) founded by William F. Buckley and run by another former Reagan advisor, T. Kenneth Crib, Jr. is one of the country's leading recipients of conservative funding, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy . In addition to its generous scholarships and research grants for conservatives, ISI funnels cash to over eighty right-wing student publications through its Collegiate Network (CN). A report by People for the American Way quotes the editor-in-chief of the conservative Stanford Review as saying CN staffers "help us form our opinions."
The fruit of these efforts has been a sea change in campus media over the past twenty years. While right-wing publications like Ann Coulter's Cornell Review were once somewhat rare, today nearly every major school in the nation has an active, right-minded student newspaper. The same cannot be said for the Left.
The Backlash comes to campus
To truly understand today's campus conservatives, you have to look past the organizing to the ideology. And that means appreciating the shift from traditional conservatism to the backlash' politics of the past few decades. As Thomas Frank argues in What's the Matter With Kansas? , the backlash came about when traditional big-business conservatives, tired of facing the resentment of ordinary working-class Americans, stumbled onto wedge' social issues in the 1960s. They found that cultural battles could transform the populist anger of "regular folk" long directed at "fat-cat" corporate elites into a new cultural populism aimed at the liberal intelligentsia.
That backlash is as evident on campus today as the diversity upon which it feeds. So while the scholarly roots of conservatism are still a big part of the college movement, it's clear that much of the current focus is on angry, non-debatable cultural conservatism.
That's why YAF has a conservative speakers bureau' that sends all kinds of pissed-off culture warriors to campus, including black conservatives to argue that liberals are "soft racists" and conservative "feminists" to rail against the "misogynistic" liberalism of "The Vagina Monologues."
But beyond anger, the defining characteristic of cultural populists is that they view themselves as victims of murky forces operating behind the scenes. And just as they'll pass their adulthoods convinced they belong to a silent majority that's repressed by a covertly liberal media, they go through their college days believing a biased faculty is trying to force a hidden lefty agenda down their throats.
In fact, liberal bias in the academy is a fiction based on the same sort of selective analysis used to "prove" bias in the media. While there are certainly plenty of liberal professors, never mentioned are inherently conservative departments like economics, right-leaning frats and student groups, the influence of campus ROTC or the fact that for every left-leaning Vassar or Oberlin there is an equally conservative Washington and Lee or BYU.
Instead, the focus is on departments like sociology or ethnic and women's studies where there's a lot of progressive thought. In those departments conservatives collect liberal professors' statements, take them out of context and use them to weave a circumstantial case of bias. The goal is not to promote diversity of opinion but to convince people that our nation's universities have been hijacked by, as the title of one book put it, "tenured radicals" who brainwash our youth with their crypto-socialist ideology.
Unfortunately, many students buy into the myth. For a generation raised on the reactionary polemics of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, more intellectual brands of conservatism those based on Hobbes, Hayek and Friedman are often unrecognizable; they appear solidly centrist to today's backlash youth. And once you're convinced that the university is a virtual liberal re-education camp, then every slight and inconvenience of campus life becomes further proof of the malevolence of the Left. That fits nicely with Thomas Frank's claim that populist ideology isn't built from the ground up with ideas but is a "horizontal" argument amounting to a never-ending laundry list of petty gripes and grievances.
In that spirit, whenever a liberal professor clashes with a conservative student or an arbitrary rule causes a conservative some inconvenience, the offense is tracked assiduously by professional watchdogs like David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture or Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group founded by Lynne Cheney, issued a report about unpatriotic professors following 9/11, and another group, Accuracy in Academia, made waves in the 1980s when they offered the McCarthyite claim that their "research" showed there to be 10,000 known Communists among university faculties.
Rebels with a cause
Savvy organizers have seized on all that righteous anger and created an appealing image for today's young conservative: rebellious and oddly counter-cultural, courageously fighting the power. They've also co-opted the mocking, confrontational tone of bygone campus radicals in their tactics. So we see stunts like "affirmative-action bake sales" (in which people of different races are charged different prices for cookies) or the announcement of "whites only" scholarships on campuses across the country.
And since conservatives are now the rebels, they sometimes run afoul of university "speech codes" and get into other trouble. When they do, groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Center for Individual Rights both flush with right-wing foundation money step in with pro-bono legal help and sue on behalf of the aggrieved students. Usually, the suits get thrown out of court or the university immediately settles. But the cases become further "evidence" of the tyranny of the Left and are thus eaten up by the conservative media.
The young conservative's conspiratorial view of liberalism will last a lifetime. That's why progressive leaders have a choice to make: they can continue to leave it to earnest but poorly-networked students to fight it out with a shoe-string budget against a well-lubricated political machine, or they can get in the game and start pushing back.
That means taking a page from the conservative playbook and giving young liberal activists the tools they need to be more effective. Right now, only the College Democrats and a few single-issue groups are doing anything at all on a nationwide basis. The campus Left needs a network that links activists at different schools, and their publications and speaker programs need financial support. Above all, the Left needs a national organization with the training, scholarships, media savvy and "leadership conferences" that the Right has used so effectively.
Only now, more than thirty years after conservatives began planning and organizing for the long haul, are progressives attempting to do the same thing. But unless they bring that long-term vision to the campus wars, the next generation of conservatives will be even more dogmatic and uncompromising than the ones in power today, and they will have won plenty of converts along the way. That should come as a troubling thought to liberals of every generation.
On April 29, 1992, Tom DeLay stood up on the House floor and decried a "tax-funded boondoggle" that sent freshman members of Congress to Harvard for a seminar. "Yes," DeLay asserted, "the congressional freshman orientation at Harvard doesn't cost millions of dollars. But even the thousands of dollars of tax money used for this congressional boondoggle sets a bad example for new Members of Congress." Instead, DeLay urged, "grassroots organizations" should conduct orientations at no cost to the American taxpayer. The organizations DeLay named were the Coalition for America, the Council for National Policy, Free Congress, and Free the Eagle, all radical conservative groups with ties to the right-wing Christian evangelical movement. As DeLay spoke, the Council for National Policy (CNP) was in a fight with the IRS over a tax-funded boondoggle of its own, a fight in which CNP ultimately would emerge the victor.
Most Americans – even many self-professed political junkies – probably have never heard of CNP or would confuse it with countless other groups with similarly unremarkable names (including the Center for National Policy, a liberal group). But conservative activists would know what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has referred to as "the heart of a great conservative movement that helped to make America strong and prosperous in the 20th century – and is now helping to ensure she remains free and secure in the 21st century," or what Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence has called "the most influential gathering of conservatives in America." But because CNP has been so successful at maintaining its secrecy – flouting the law for more than two decades – it has managed to obscure the depth of its reach in conservative political organizations, political fundraising, the conservative media, and even the Bush administration itself.
Who Is Behind CNP?
While the law does not require a tax-exempt organization to disclose the names of its members (in order to protect their ability to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of association privately, if they choose), it does require disclosure of the officers and directors of these organizations, and this information is available to anyone with access to the internet. And some CNP members, often in the context of bolstering their conservative credentials, have proudly revealed their CNP membership, even though CNP's policy is to keep membership a secret.
CNP was founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the right-wing, evangelical political motivator and author of the Left Behind serial, which chronicles a fictional Armageddon and second coming (in which the non-believers are left behind while believers are carried off in a rapturous moment without their clothes. It gives an eerie ring to the No Child Left Behind Act). LaHaye's empire includes his fingerprints on a number of evangelically-oriented, right-wing political action groups, his wife Beverly's Concerned Women for America, along with the twelve Left Behind novels, which, according to the author's own web site, have sold 55 million copies worldwide since their introduction in 1995. The original directors, as listed with CNP's articles of incorporation filed with the Texas Secretary of State in 1981 were, along with LaHaye, Howard Phillips, a long-time conservative activist with plenty of conservative groups under his wing, and Bob J. Perry, a Texas businessman who has long donated vast amounts of money to conservative causes, including the tort reform effort in Texas. Last year, Perry gave over $8 million to conservative 527 groups, including $4.5 million to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and $3 million to the Progress for America Voter Fund, which spent over $35 million running pro-Bush and anti-Kerry ads during the campaign and is now backing Bush's Social Security privatization.
Today, CNP's board and roster of known members is a who's who of the radical right, and a sampling includes former Reagan cabinet member Donald Hodel, also president of James Dobson's Focus on the Family; Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, who has served on CNP's board, as have Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform and Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation; Holly Coors; T. Kenneth Cribb, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute; and Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Council, which provides a media network through which it disseminates radical conservative ideology and propaganda.
CNP's tentacles also reach into a community of well-connected activists who advocate for the imposition of fundamentalist Christian ideology in public life and have succeeded in forcing their agenda in the Bush administration. Besides the well-known affiliation of Dobson and Hodel, just one example is the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has paid CNP dues so that Michael Farris, its executive director, could attend the meetings. Farris has since also become president of Patrick Henry College (PHC), founded in 2000 for home-schooled students. PHC aims to "prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding" and "to aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence." Janet Ashcroft, the former attorney general's wife, and Barbara Hodel, Hodel's wife, also serve on PHC's Board of Trustees. PHC's academic dean, Paul Bonicelli, was appointed by Bush to a private U.N. delegation to promote biblical values in U.S. foreign policy. Farris, along with Hodel and Dobson, were on hand with Bush at the signing ceremony of the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. PHC students have gone on to work for Karl Rove and for the White House Office of Public Liaison, and students and faculty are frequently invited to be on hand for White House and inaugural events. The fact that the school's choir sang at a CNP meeting – when the meetings and membership are a closely guarded secret – testifies to the ties between the school and CNP.
CNP's Tax Exemption: A History of Broken Promises
The benefits of tax-exempt status are considerable to both an organization's supporters and the organization itself: contributions are deductible from an individual's taxable income, and the organization pays no federal income tax. In order to maintain tax-exempt status, these organizations must make educational materials available, by providing instruction or training by way of discussion groups, forums, panels or lectures that are open to the public. The instruction may be made through media such as radio, television or the internet.
The IRS, which had granted CNP permission to operate as a tax-exempt educational organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code in 1981, revoked CNP's tax exemption in early 1992. CNP then sued the IRS in the United States Tax Court to gain reinstatement of its tax-exempt status. Shortly before the 1992 presidential election, the IRS settled the case with CNP and gave it back its tax shelter. Since that time, however, CNP has changed nothing about its operations. But the IRS has continued to give it a free ride.
CNP operated since its inception – and continues to operate today – in direct contravention of these legal requirements. CNP's membership is by invitation only. Unlike most other tax-exempt educational organizations, an ordinary person cannot just write a check and join, attend a forum, or purchase a publication. Its meetings – which consist of speeches, panel discussions, workshops and meals – are open only to members and special invited guests. CNP prohibits attendees from discussing the content of meetings publicly. The media are prohibited from attending. CNP does not disseminate any written materials to non-members. In other words, you won't see one of its meetings televised, and you can't order a book, journal or pamphlet from CNP. The IRS cited all these reasons when it revoked CNP's tax-exempt status in 1992.
CNP is not merely excluding outsiders from neighborhood bridge games. The prominence and power of its members – and their political clout within the Bush administration – require, more urgently, the openness of its activities. But CNP has laughed in the face of the IRS and the American public's right to know for more than 20 years, a period during which the radical right has aimed – and largely succeeded – in hijacking the Republican Party.
When CNP first applied to the IRS for tax-exempt status, it promised that it would provide educational opportunities for its members and "issue publications." But CNP artfully phrased the language regarding membership qualifications; instead of saying, as is the case, that membership was by invitation only for committed conservatives, CNP told the IRS that "[m]embers must be elected by the Executive Committee. There are no fixed qualifications."
During the application process, the IRS specifically pressed CNP for evidence it would educate the public. In response, CNP produced a copy of Foreign Affairs, the quarterly publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, on which CNP claimed to model itself. (The Council on Foreign Relations, also a tax-exempt educational organization, operates transparently and produces many educational items for the use of the general public. And although CNP claimed to model itself on the Council on Foreign Relations, at its founding CNP considered itself a conservative antidote to what it decried as the "liberalism" of the Council on Foreign Relations.) CNP told the IRS that Foreign Affairs is "an example of the type of publication we are likely to issue forth within the next year or so. Most publications will probably go only to members. However a quarterly scholarly journal would be widely distributed to libraries and the general public." CNP has never produced such a quarterly scholarly journal.
In fact, the absence of the quarterly journal, or any other materials for the use of the general public, was the main argument the IRS made in revoking CNP's tax-exempt status eleven years later, in January 1992. The IRS focused on the fact that CNP's primary activity was hosting meetings for its members, who could join only if invited by the Executive Committee, at luxury resorts, where they (and in some cases their families) ate gourmet meals and had access to all the recreational amenities the resorts had to offer. And because CNP's principal activity was organizing these membership meetings, and not presenting discussion groups, forums, panels, lectures or other programs that the public could attend or view through television, print or other media, the IRS determined that CNP was serving a private, not a public, interest and was not entitled to tax exempt status.
Two weeks after DeLay made his pitch on the House floor (perhaps in a vain effort to portray CNP as an organization that did indeed educate the public), CNP sued the IRS in the United States Tax Court to have its tax-exempt status reinstated. The case was scheduled for trial in May 1993. But on Oct. 15, 1992, when the presidential campaign between then-President George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton was drawing to a close, the tax court judge entered an order reinstating CNP's tax exempt status. According to the judge's order, CNP had filed a new application for tax-exempt status in February 1992, which the IRS granted in August 1992. (The IRS releases the tax-exempt applications, known as the Form 1023, without a Freedom of Information Act request. The IRS makes CNP's 1981 Form 1023 available, but an IRS agent at the agency's public records center said that a Form 1023 CNP filed in February 1992 does not exist. The agent, who did not have specific knowledge of the CNP case, said that in litigation, the organization and the IRS often agree to changes in the organization's operations that lead the IRS to reinstate the organization's tax-exempt status without another application. The agent said in such cases the IRS typically does not require the organization to file another application because it would be an "undue burden.")
CNP's Activities Since Reinstatement of Its Tax-Exempt Status
One might have expected then, that CNP and the IRS had agreed to a change in operations that would have lent legitimacy to CNP's tax-free ride. But in the 12 years since the dispute went away, CNP has changed virtually nothing about its operations. It has no quarterly journal or any other publication that is distributed to the general public. It has no web site. Its meetings are still closed, and are still held at exclusive hotels and resorts. Its members are still forbidden from talking to the press or the public about what happens at meetings, as are invited guests, including representatives of foreign governments. From both the secrecy and the scant information that is available about CNP's activities, it is clear that no significant changes have been implemented since 1992.
Years after its tax-exempt status was restored, CNP purchased the domain names cfnp.org and cfnp.com (neither of which have any content) and put up a web site of its supposed journal, Policy Counsel. The web site is the "biannual journal of the Council for National Policy." The "journal" consists of selected speeches from CNP meetings, and lately have included "Fighting the Domestic War," by Marvin Olasky (the architect of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign pabulum "compassionate conservatism"), in which he advocated the "overthrow" of the National Education Association "regime," a group that he described as "an unelected group that demands allegiance to a central atheistic uniformity." The speech took place after Secretary of Education Rod Paige's characterization of the NEA as a "terrorist organization;" Olasky said the NEA wasn't a terrorist organization but it was "terrifying." Another speech was "Campaign Finance Reform," by NRA President Wayne LaPierre, in which he complained that the McCain-Feingold restriction on mentioning a candidate's name within 60 days of an election infringed on the NRA's free speech rights. He further complained that the NRA would have trouble raising money for a PAC, which was the only way around the restriction. (The NRA Political Victory Fund raised over $12 million in 2003-04, ranking it 8th among all PACs in receipts, and it was the 10th top PAC in total independent expenditures in the 2004 election cycle, a figure that includes advertising that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a specific candidate.)
While one might conclude that policycounsel.org represents CNP's effort to produce a scholarly journal along the lines of Foreign Affairs, one would be forced to conclude otherwise – if not based on its flimsy content – based on its inaccessibility. First, the site is constructed in such a way that search engines do not find it if you search for, say, "Council for National Policy." You would find it if you searched "policy counsel" but not if you searched "'policy counsel' and 'council for national policy,'" on Google. (You would find a web site, not affiliated with CNP, at which you can supposedly purchase a subscription to Policy Counsel for 20 dollars a year, compared to the cover price of zero dollars.) You similarly would not find the site if you Googled Steve Baldwin, CNP's executive director, whose name is on the Policy Counsel web site. In other words, you would have to know that CNP's journal was called Policy Counsel, but CNP hardly publicizes that fact, and it takes considerable investigation to track it down. Even though CNP owns the domain names cfnp.org and cfnp.com, it has no content on those sites, not even a link to policycounsel.org. In response to an e-mail request, a CNP staffer responded that "the current Policy Counsel Journals are no longer available in print."
Moreover, none of the many organizations with which CNP directors and members are affiliated link to policycounsel.org, including Americans for Tax Reform; the Free Congress Foundation; the Heritage Foundation; the Media Research Center; and The Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty. (The Patrick Henry Center was formed in 1998 by former FBI agent and Clinton antagonist Gary Aldrich; its board of directors is filled with current and former CNP Directors: former Attorney General Edwin Meese, Iran-contra figure Oliver North, former Louisiana State Rep. Woody Jenkins; Minnesota businessman and education activist John Scribante; Weyrich; Phillips; and Alan Dye, a lawyer who represented CNP its Tax Court litigation.)
In other words, not only does CNP make no effort to distribute its "journal," it makes a concerted effort to hide it.
Where Are the Media?
Probably the most-talked about CNP speech that both the organization and the speaker refused to make public was George W. Bush's speech to a CNP meeting in 1999, when he was first running for president. The internet is rife with speculation about what Bush said – or promised – at this meeting. But Bush the candidate refused to release the text of the speech, citing CNP's own internal policy of closed meetings. And the CNP, of course, refused to release it for the same reasons.
There was a small flurry of media coverage of candidate Bush's refusal to release his speech, but it soon died down and CNP slipped into hiding again. Since then, only two major news outlets have published stories devoted entirely to CNP, and while both discussed the organization's secrecy, neither questioned the propriety of it. In May 2002, ABC News ran a piece on their web site called, "Inside The Council for National Policy: Meet the Most Powerful Conservative Group You've Never Heard Of," which outed some high-level BushaAdministration officials as speakers at a meeting at a "ritzy hotel" in Tysons Corner, Va. The article did not question whether it was acceptable in a democracy – not to mention legal – for a Supreme Court Justice (Clarence Thomas), White House counsel (Alberto Gonzales) and close Bush advisor (deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison Timothy Goeglein, himself an evangelical Christian who has said that Bush is "God's man,") to give secret speeches or have secret meetings with a secret organization subsidized by the American taxpayer.
At the time of the 2004 Republican National Convention, the The New York Times ran a brief story on CNP's meeting in New York, described as "'a pep rally' to re-elect President Bush," buried on page 10 of a Saturday paper. The article disclosed some high-level attendees, including Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and revealed, well after the fact and for the first time in the American press, that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had attended a meeting "not long after the Iraq invasion." The article did virtually nothing to add to the public discussion of CNP's activities or to question its tax-exempt status.
And while the mainstream media is asleep at the switch, CNP members' access to conservative media outlets enable them to collaborate and disseminate their propaganda. One example is Bozell and the Media Research Center, the mission of which is "to provide the conservative movement with the marketing and public relations tools necessary to deliver its message into the 21st century." Another example is that five directors of Salem Communications Company are or have been officers and directors of CNP: Salem's president and CEO, Edward G. Atsinger, III; Stuart W. Epperson (host of Truth Talk Live, a radio show broadcast on Salem's radio network); Roland S. Hinz (who is also president of Hi-Favor Communications, which has purchased radio stations from Salem to implement a Christian format in Spanish); Hodel; and Judge Paul Pressler (a retired Texas judge who has made a career of advocating a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention). Salem owns over 100 Christian broadcast radio stations, is the provider of Christian programming on XM Satellite Radio, and recently agreed with America Online to provide the only Christian talk radio station on the AOL Radio Network. Last year, Salem was ranked in the top 100 in Fortune Small Business magazine's list of fastest growing small public companies. Salem is the seventh largest owner of radio stations in the country, and while it barely rivals Clear Channel at over 1,200 stations, the combined Christian broadcasting power of Salem and American Family Radio – a project of the American Family Association – would rank them fourth, just behind powerhouses Clear Channel, Cumulus, and Citadel. Many Republican House and Senate candidates, as well as the Bush/Cheney campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Majority Issues Committee, the issue advertising committee formed by DeLay, have been the beneficiaries of not only Atsinger's largesse, but that of Salem Communications' political action committee as well.
How the Conservative Media "Covers" CNP
Members of the conservative media – many of whom have CNP ties – have on occasion reported on CNP meetings and suggested a CNP hand in shaping Administration policy. In May 2001, World magazine, which is edited by Olasky, reported on its web site that CNP, "a confidential network of several hundred highly influential conservative business leaders," received "lavish attention from the White House" at its twentieth anniversary conference. World reported that CNP's "elite Gold Circle Club met May 3 at the White House with chief strategist Karl Rove and President Bush," that Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke at a "private Gold Circle dinner," and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke to the entire group. Records of White House staff whose sole function is to advise and assist the president are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, but a speech given to an organization that essentially receives public funding is not a "government record." It is a document that the public is entitled to see and would see if the IRS were doing its job. Similarly, records of federal courts are not subject to FOIA, but all the Supreme Court justices, except Scalia and Thomas, have posted their speeches on the Supreme Court we bsite. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of Justice said that "a written speech was not prepared for the Attorney General to deliver to the Gold Circle Club dinner in May 2001, because the Council had asked the Attorney General to participate in dinner conversation only and had not requested any formal remarks from him."
Around the same time ABC published its piece on the CNP meeting, in May 2002, the conservative press filled in some additional details. At that CNP meeting, which took place ten months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, a writer for the ultraconservative NewsMax participated on a CNP panel about the war on terrorism. (NewsMax's president and editor is Christopher Ruddy, who formerly wrote for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and Richard Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and is the author of the conspiracy-mongering The Strange Death of Vincent Foster.) The writer, Dr. Alexandr Nemets, reported that among the 500 "prominent" attendees, "several high-ranking officials in the Bush administration made speeches and participated in panel discussions." He reported a complete uniformity of judgment – at a meeting attended by Bush administration officials when the Bush administration would still pretend for several months to try diplomacy – that Saddam needed to be deposed with military force. According to Nemets, everyone at the meeting agreed that:
Saddam's regime should be toppled as soon as possible ... America should not wait for the fall of Saddam's regime ... [which is] organized exactly along the lines of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party that ruled Germany in 1933-45. Saddam's regime – just like Hitler's – won't implode due to internal problems. ... At the same time, America, in its strikes against Iraq, will not be the aggressor but the leader and the united force of all the opposition groups inside Iraq – the Kurds, Shia minority, etc. This will greatly facilitate the military operations against Saddam.Nemets further reported that the attendees had ruled out military action against the other members of the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea.
One year later, about two weeks after Saddam fell, both Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke at the CNP meeting in Washington. The attendance of the vice president and secretary of defense (during a war) was not reported at all by the American media, but was reported by several papers in Alberta, because the Albertan Economic Development Minister Mark Norris attended the meeting. (Norris, through a spokesman, claimed that a copy of Norris's remarks at the meeting was "not available.") The purpose of Norris trip, as reported in the Calgary Herald, was to "meet with a secretive and influential right-wing think-tank in a bid to mend fences over Canada's refusal to join the war in Iraq, and help Alberta companies win rebuilding contracts." But, according to a Ministry of Economic Development press release, Norris was there also to promote Alberta's oil production from its oil sands and to encourage trade with the United States. (In 1998, when Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, Inc., its Brown & Root subsidiary won a $160 million contract from a Canadian company, Syncrude Canada Ltd., that was extracting oil from the Albertan oil sands.) But Cheney's and Rumsfeld's attendance managed to stay under the radar screen of the American media.
Somehow, however, CNP's long-standing secrecy policy managed to slip by a Defense Department freedom of information official, and the Pentagon released Rumsfeld's speech under the Freedom of Information Act. The speech was a thank you for CNP's Thomas Jefferson Award for Servant Leadership. Rumsfeld was introduced by Hodel, who at the time was CNP's President. Rumsfeld gave a brief speech in which he likened the war in Iraq to the American Revolution, admitting that work remained to do to secure the peace there. He went so far in the analogy as to quote Thomas Jefferson as saying, shortly after the Revolution, that "'we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.'" Rumsfeld loved the Jefferson quote and recycled it in numerous speeches, all available on the internet. He repeated it in a May 27, 2003 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and in a speech to – ironically – the Council on Foreign Relations that same day, a July 4, 2003 speech at the Pentagon, and even in a May 17, 2004 speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he also discussed Abu Ghraib, where prisoners could not even expect a chair, much less a bed of any kind. One notable difference in the CNP speech was the bone Rumsfeld threw to the group whose members' bedrock belief is that America is a Christian nation, when he said that "Jefferson and the founders firmly believed that ours was a nation set here by Providence to serve as a beacon of freedom for the world."
Other conservative elected officials continue to speak at CNP meetings and go unnoticed by the media. Congressman Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who recently was named a "Hero of the Taxpayer" by Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-government group led by Grover Norquist, who has for years served on CNP's board of directors, was the keynote speaker at CNP's March 2004 meeting in San Diego. Pence posted his speech on his web site in March, but currently only has a press release about the speech. In the speech, Pence announced, "I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican – in that order ... I am deeply humbled to address CNP, the most influential gathering of conservatives in America!" The speech, which was filled with biblical references, contained thinly veiled hints that Bush ought to pay attention if he wanted to have the support of true conservatives come November. While he battered the president for expanding government and government spending, he hailed him for his stand on tax cuts, national defense, and same-sex marriage, concluding that "our cause" is "to stand with our captain as he leads us well, to right the ship in that where she is adrift, and to support his every effort to set her right." A few months later, at the Republican National Convention "pep rally," Jerry Falwell (whose speech is posted on policycounsel.org), threatened that Bush could not win without the vote of Christian conservatives, who might stay home on Election Day if the Republican candidate did not commit himself to their issues, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
That the Bush administration won't make its dealings with CNP public only reinforces a suspicion raised by the scant information that is available about CNP: that the administration (and candidate Bush in both 2000 and 2004) made promises to CNP that it wouldn't want more moderate voters to hear or that CNP exerts a pressure on the White House that it would rather keep secret.
What's Next on CNP's Agenda?
Most recently, Rush Limbaugh spoke at CNP's meeting last month, readying the troops for a battle on immigration reform. The conservative writer John Fund wrote several weeks ago in the Wall Street Journals Opinion Journal about the potential for immigration to be a wedge issue for Republicans. Fund said that he spoke with Rush Limbaugh "backstage before he discussed immigration at a private meeting of 400 leading conservatives." ("A private meeting of 400 leading conservatives" is often code for CNP in the conservative press.) Limbaugh has the transcript and video of his CNP speech on his web site (available only to paying members of his "24/7 Club"). NewsMax later reported that in another speech, Limbaugh said that "the Republicans' failure to understand the American people's building rage on illegal immigration" could give rise to a third party anti-immigration candidate in 2008.
Could the radical right's strategy on the immigration issue have echoes of the anti-gay marriage movement? Certainly CNP had its hand in both pressuring Bush and other Republicans to endorse a federal amendment banning gay marriage and to activate supporters to oppose gay marriage at the grassroots level, using the threat to stay home on election day to push Bush on their radical agenda. Steve Baldwin, CNP's executive director, wrote a propagandist article in 2002 for the Regent University Law Review (Regent University is affiliated with Pat Robertson), titled "Child Molestation and the Homosexual Movement." CNP Action, a lobbying arm of CNP, was one of numerous groups which publicly thanked Bush for supporting a federal amendment banning gay marriage. It's not hard to imagine how Limbaugh's and other conservatives' current rantings on immigration could instigate a bigoted backlash similar to the one against gay marriage.
Tom DeLay was wrong that CNP's activities do not cost the taxpayers a dime. CNP and its members benefit twice from its tax-exempt status: its members can take a tax deduction for their (often hefty) membership dues, and CNP pays no federal income tax on its revenues. CNP even convinced the legislature of Virginia, where it now maintains its headquarters, to exempt it from paying sales tax on items purchased in the state. And considering that members pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual contributions (CNP insists that these are not membership "dues," but rather "contributions," a classification that allows its members to fully deduct the amount, since the portion of membership dues for which a member receives benefits and privileges are not deductible), its members are receiving a significant financial benefit at a cost to American taxpayers. In 2003, the last year for which CNP's tax filings are available, it received almost a million dollars in contributions, including donations from the foundations of some of the wealthiest Americans, such as the Coors and deVos families. Considering that CNP only has a few hundred members, they each are receiving a healthy tax advantage for their generous contributions. Certainly, to borrow from DeLay's comments, the cost to taxpayers is thousands, not millions of dollars. But more important than the financial cost is the cost to democracy.
This wintry season, as the faithful continue to receive alarming reports from the news that Republicans are all that stand between them and the outlawing of Christmas itself by hordes of secular humanists, the two presidents Bush have endorsed a powerful conservative interest group specializing in removing the cross – not from schools or courthouses, but from churches.
Rather than the traditional egg hunt, this group, calling itself the American Clergy Leadership Conference, sponsored a nationwide "Tear Down The Cross" day for Easter, 2003. Last week, leaders in this radical cause presided over a Washington prayer breakfast featuring messages of thanks from the presidents. Former Sen. Bob Dole came in person.
Mostly African American, pastors who joined in 2003's ACLC-sponsored "Tear Down The Cross" won gold watches from the wealthy group, which unabashedly claims in its publications to have stripped churches of over a hundred crosses over the Easter holiday alone. This, movement leaders said, cleared the way for a new age and second messiah.
Speaking of messiahs, make a quick stop at the Web site of the ACLC, and it's clear there's more to it than the "rapidly growing movement of clergy committed to the endeavor of making this nation the best that it can be," as the ACLC described itself in a Dec. 8 Washington Times op-ed. It's actually a vehicle for Sun Myung Moon, the billionaire conservative donor who calls himself the True Father.
Though the breakfast boasted two other "co-sponsors," both are easily identifiable as projects of the self-declared Messiah: the International and Interreligious Federation of World Peace and the American Family Coalition, which Moon founded in 1984. How much more eminent these names sound than "the Moonies"! In the 1970s, that was the shorthand on the evening news for Moon's followers, whose frank call for crushing Western democracy, combined with success in recruiting teenagers, made them a popular nightmare on the evening news.
On Wednesday, a video file containing the elder President Bush's message to the ACLC disappeared from the movement's web site, though both Bush endorsements were reported in the Washington Times. Neither the White House nor the ACLC returned requests for comment on the breakfast and President Bush's participation.
Taking out the Trash
One series of photos found on Moon's Web site, but purged after receiving unfavorable attention earlier this year from evangelicals, shows Massachusetts preacher John Kingara taking down the cross from his church, hauling it behind the old brick building and hoisting it into a dumpster. Another shows a ritual in Israel disposing of the cross in the earth.
Kingara, embracing the ACLC's new gospel, declared in remarks found in the Unification News, "The fact that the cross is a symbol of division, shame, suffering and bloodshed prove that it is not of God but Satan." He continued, "On this 18th day of April 2003, we are beginning a new history. Pastors, please, help me to bring the cross down, because it is not of God but the devil."
Cheerfully pitched to pastors as "trade your cross for a crown," Moon's rebate plan takes its name from a 1913 hymn with a somewhat different slant. Whereas "The Old Rugged Cross" pines for salvation in heaven, Moon offered the pastors the possibility to cash in here on earth, at a taxpayer-funded Senate building. At a secret March 23, 2004 ceremony, he declared he was erecting heaven on earth. That evening, the elderly Korean eminence behind the ACLC was brought the twinkling crown by bowing Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.).
Moon was no accidental VIP that night. Far from being on the fringes of Washington, he's the supermogul behind a political and media empire that includes the Washington Times and United Press International, as well as being a longtime friend of the Bush family.
In Moon's teachings, God himself is shedding tears over mankind's obsession with the cross, which prevents us from recognizing the real "returning lord": Moon himself. It's no secret. This is something he's patiently explained to many audiences of congressmen and former Republican presidents over the years, in Washington pageants that hardly ever make the news.
Moon was keynote speaker last week, declaring in remarks reprinted by the Times that "God's heart is under confinement." In some ways it was a repeat performance of the Senate coronation ceremony, which The New York Times editorial page compared to an act of the mad emperor Caligula.
You may remember that Sen. John Warner and other congressmen unloaded on Moon's entourage for "deceiving" them into sponsoring a ceremony where America "surrendered to [Moon] in the king's role," according to an internal church memo. "America is saying to Father, 'please become my king,'" claimed Moon minister Chung Kwak. The versatile Kwak is currently wearing a second hat as head of the UPI news agency, added to Moon's collection of media properties in 2000.
Strangely enough, last week the hosts of the "surrender" ceremony weren't blasted but blessed by two presidents of the United States. The same faces were there: George Stallings, Jr., the flamboyant ex-archbishop who bellowed at the March dinner for America to open up its heart to Moon; Michael Jenkins and Chang Shik Yang, hosts of past "Tear Down The Cross" rituals; and former Democratic D.C. representative Walter Fauntroy, who shares the Moonies' opposition to gay civil unions (Moon calls gays "dung-eating dogs"; Fauntroy calls same-sex marriage "an abomination"). Congressman Davis did not attend.
Like the Senate party, this conference climaxed with a new Crown of Peace awarded to Moon by his own organization, though in this case they held off on the royal treatment until the following evening. The award was reported by UPI.
According to a report in the Washington Times as well as video found on the Moon-affiliated Web site FamilyFed.org, the elder Bush made a taped appearance before the ACLC's 3,000-strong crowd, which he thanked for their work. "I thought about parachuting into the building," he joked about wishing he could make it. And he paid lip service to Moon's unwieldy religious jargon, using phrases like "peace centered on God," a goal that he called "right on target."
His son, George W. Bush, wrote a warm letter of support presented at the event by a state senator, in which the president and his wife Laura sent his best wishes to the sponsors – and thanked them for rallying his "armies of compassion." It is unclear what the ACLC has done for society's problems, though its Web site is selling a video called "Beyond The Cross," and an affiliated Moon front group, Free Teens USA, has received almost half a million dollars under Bush's abstinence-only program.
Last year, as word seeped out of a movement with billions in the bank, exchanging gifts and promises of financial security for the rejection of Protestant beliefs, more mainstream, born-again Christians, like radio host Vic Eliason, were horrified. He warned on his nationally-syndicated program CrossTalk that the ACLC was ushering a false teacher into the houses of belief. Others speculated Moon was the Antichrist. But how many listeners knew that the false teacher's phone number might as well be programmed into George H.W. Bush's mobile phone?
Wouldn't Be Prudent
The elder Bush once explained his cooperation with Moon's Unification Church to the Washington Post, through a spokesman, as follows: "this group is about strengthening the family and that's what President and Mrs. Bush are deeply focused on." Well, after a fashion. Moon preaches that Jesus failed to start a family, which is why God is "confined," as he said Tuesday – grieved by his son's having blown it for mankind, with the Nazi Holocaust a punishment for the Jews' failure to unite behind the King of the Jews.
And so Moon says he's building a new kingdom centered on "absolute family-ism," referring to his True Family of sworn followers. In the past, his new sons and daughters have rejected their own families to join Moon, who handpicks mates for them to marry at his mass weddings. One ex-member is Cathryn Mazer, whose grieving family was filmed in 1993 by the "Today Show" as they tried without success to enter a Moon dormitory where Cathryn was staying. She says photos of Moon with Bush played a major role in the seminar that indoctrinated her into the cult – used to sell potential converts on the legitimacy of Moon.
"If someone told you about it, it would seem too far-fetched to be plausible," she says.
Yet the friendship is well-documented. Reuters reported in the mid-'90s that the elder Bush trekked to Argentina as a paid spokesman for Moon, whom he introduced as "the man with the vision." During the Clinton years, Bush also tagged along with Moon's speaking tour in Japan, where the former president had kind words for his strange bedfellow, an ex-convict. Bush is estimated to have received upwards of $1 million for these appearances. Moon also gave $1 million to Bush's presidential library. And when Bush was vice president, it was a generous check from Moon that opened Oliver North's Contra Freedom Fund.
But Washington conservatives are most thankful to Moon for lavishing more than $2 billion on the money-losing Washington Times. The paper was an important building block in the construction of the alternative, Republican media machine as we know it today. But many conservatives were quietly uneasy – fretting that a pact was being made with the devil. At a 1997 Washington Times anniversary dinner, the elder Bush made a video appearance similar to Monday's, crediting the paper with winning the Cold War, and similarly sharing a stage with Moon, who claimed then that he had founded the Times to save the world.
In Monday's video, Bush declared: "I want to salute a man I respect: Wes Pruden," referring to the Times editor, whose paper frequently publicizes Moon projects that most newspapers would ignore. On December 7 he ran a piece by ACLC Rev. Donnie McLeod, who has argued for the removal of the cross in sermons covered by Unification Church publications.
The cross-disposal theologian wrote: "as the president is now free from the election concerns and can never be reelected, he can now build a legacy for America and the world." ACLC leaders, he said, "are ready to see the president as I see him, a man to God who is truly ready to make the sacrifices and commitments to create a legacy of faith and family that will guide our nation for the next 200 years."
The Washington Times Foundation is slippery to define, an organization with multiple public faces that morphs when convenient into the ACLC and other religious organizations. The Senate coronation, for example, was booked under the name of the foundation, though it was treated as a photo opportunity for the South Korean religious arm of the church, which trumpeted it as the U.S. government's official stamp of approval on plans for the future of Christianity.
A former Times editor, James Whalen, told me that the protean nature of the group makes it easy to involve national-level figures in "showcasing" Moon – yet conveniently allows politicians to claim, for example, that they only dropped by to lift a glass to the awesome investigative reporting of Times reporter Bill Gertz.
And meanwhile, at the other end of the invisible line between mainstream and eldrich, there is the ACLC and its persistence in seeing the Christian cross disposed of like nuclear waste. A month after Easter last year, the group flew holy men from all over the world to a graveside in Israel, where undertakers had draped a cross beneath the blue and yellow flag of Reverend Moon, and buried the cross forever – another casualty at the hands of the armies of compassion.
Spurred on by the likes of Bill O'Reilly, conservatives are outraged at the war against Christianity supposedly declared in department stores' "Happy Holidays" signs. But secularism is one thing, and sacrilege is something else, especially coming from Sun Myung Moon's cult, which indulges dreams of becoming the state religion. The president has built his reputation on being a good Methodist, but he rarely attends church, come to think of it. And he has cozied up to a desecration spree that Tim LaHaye couldn't make up in his "Left Behind" books. Is he what he pretends to be?
The State Department announced this week that the Independent Women's Forum is one of the recipients of $10 million in grants to "train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic public life."
Which leaves me wondering: Train women in the skills to do what, exactly? The Forum, started by supporters of Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court to oppose "radical" feminism, and an early beneficiary of Richard Mellon Scaife's deep pockets, has a record of using its own skills and practices to oppose women's progress in the United States. If you think I'm exaggerating about how atrocious the IWF's anti-feminist record is, consider the following:
- The Forum actually lobbied against the Violence Against Women Act, deriding "wishful thinking about the power of the federal government to curb violence against intimate partners."
- The IWF also disputes the existence of a wage gap between men and women and opposes efforts to strengthen enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. In a statement charmingly titled "The Mothers Day Gift We Don't Want," their president explained that any disparity in income results from the fact that women choose to have children.
- An IWF-sponsored study criticized women's studies curricula at 30 universities, and the study's author, Christine Stolba, claimed on Fox's O'Reilly Factor that women could learn more about gender politics by reading Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" than reading any of the many important books on the various syllabi.
- The group is nourished by a steady diet of contributions from some of the most conservative family endowments in the country, including the Olin, Bradley, Scaife, and Randolph foundations.
- The IWF's board of directors is an all-star lineup of anti-feminism, including the vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney; Clinton-hunter Midge Decter; former Enron board member and wife of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Wendy Lee Gramm; and National Review columnist and television personality, Kate O'Bierne.
Why conservatives think it's just fine to minimize the danger of domestic violence, punish women for having children, or ignore critical thinking about gender issues, I'm not sure but those are topics for another discussion. What I do know is that Iraqi women who should rightly expect that a responsibility of any new democratic government is to keep them safe, might find the statements and actions of the IWF less than reassuring. What signal does it send that a group like the IWF has been entrusted with the task of supervising an Iraqi women's leadership program?
Upon learning of the award, the Forum issued a press release, which read, in part: "IWF appreciates the great vote of confidence this State Department grant represents," said Heather R. Higgins, chairman of IWF's Board of Directors. "Even more, we are gratified that we will again have the privilege of walking the walk as we did with our 9/11 Infant Care Project, trying to make lives better by putting into action the ideas we espouse, using both our heads and our hearts."
IWF, with its partners, will implement a 12-month Women Leaders Program and Democracy Network Information and Coordination Center to provide Iraqi women with education on democracy and political advocacy and build networks of Iraqi women activists with a common agenda. The Center will be a key source of information and educational materials on democracy, campaigning, and governance for a variety of Iraqi democracy and women's rights advocacy organizations.
A key source of information and educational materials? The Independent Women's Forum supports weakening Title IX, which protects equal education opportunities, charging that insistence on women's athletic opportunities "wreaks havoc on men's sports teams." They argue against more opportunities for women in the military, and even opposed the integration of Virginia Military Institute.
So just what does the Independent Women's Forum plan to teach Iraqi women? Media training in how to disparage quaint concepts like equal pay, or calling on government to ignore complaints about violence against women? Or, perhaps they'll sponsor a seminar in "How to Raise Money from Anti-Women Sources to Attack Every Current Initiative to Benefit Women."
Next time you hear George W. Bush boast about what his administration is doing for the women of Iraq, think how they grateful they ought to be for this latest American import.
The St. Louis debate was spectacular. The citizens selected to ask questions proved that most talking heads don't have a thing on a group of thoughtful, gutsy Americans. I haven't seen every televised presidential debate. But of all those I've seen since the first election for which I was eligible (1988), Wednesday's was the most substantial, point-counterpoint battle I can recall.
After learning his lesson during the Mistake in Miami, President George W. Bush rid himself of the scowl. Though he was more shouty than pouty on Friday night at Washington University, the president won't make any stylistic errors at Arizona State on Wednesday, and I suspect Sen. John Kerry will maintain his cool as he did in the first two clashes. Because 68 percent of the 46 million Americans who watched the vice presidential debate said the debate had no effect on their voting plans, the debate in Cleveland between incumbent Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards was a wash.
And thus, barring one of the candidates making an egregious factual error or bogus claim during the Tussle in Tempe, the net effect of this year's debates is two-fold:
- First, Kerry locked down his partisans with his strong, fact-filled and aggressive performances.
- Second, Bush's miserable showing in Miami cost him most if not all of his roughly six-point advantage he enjoyed heading into the first debate.
If Bush were to trip up in Tempe, however, it would be more likely in response to a question for which he does not have a pre-fabricated answer. In that spirit, as I did for the first debate on foreign affairs, here are 16 suggested questions on domestic and economic policies CBS' Bob Schieffer should ask if he wants to elicit a scowl from the Shouter-in-Chief:
1. The budget deficit this year is estimated at more than $420 billion, the highest in American history and equal to more than $2,500 for every full-time working taxpayer in the country. In 2000, when the country was running a surplus, you said we had to cut taxes because those surpluses were "the people's money." By that logic, aren't the current deficits "the people's deficits," and if not, whose deficits are they and how will we pay them down?
2. A third of America's children today live below the poverty line. Do you consider this a problem, and if so, what specifically are you doing to solve it?
3. You say you're against big government, and yet you supported a farm bill in 2002 that expanded farm subsidies by roughly $130 billion over the next decade. How do you rectify your defense of small government with your advocacy for expanding farm subsidies?
4. You supported income tax cuts instead of cutting the payroll tax, the direct tax on labor. If lowering taxes on something creates more of that thing, why not advocate lowering the payroll tax on work to generate more jobs instead of cutting taxes on wealth like for inheritances, luxury items, capital gains and dividends?
5. You say you favor free and open markets, but you oppose allowing Americans to re-import identical, but much cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, something two Republican governors from Canadian-bordering states have openly advocated. Why shouldn't Americans be allowed to by cheaper drugs from Canada or online?
6. You point to new home ownership as an indication that the economy is improving. What specific policies did you enact that spurred greater home ownership rates?
7. We have the highest trade deficit in American history. Are you worried about it, why or why not, and what do you plan to do about it?
8. Earlier this year you announced aspirations to send Americans to the moon and, from there, on to Mars, yet you have hardly mentioned this space initiative since. Do you still want to pursue plans to go to the moon and Mars, and how much should America invest in this plan?
9. You initially said you opposed both of the affirmative action claims in the two University of Michigan cases from 2003. The Supreme Court rendered a split decision, upholding the use of affirmative action in one case and rejecting it in the other – and your administration then said it agreed with the split ruling. Can you clarify your switch on this issue?
10. What's your position on illegal immigration? Should Mexicans who came illegally across our southern border years ago, and who have lived and worked and paid taxes here, be given amnesty or sent back to Mexico?
11. You have proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Do you know personally any homosexuals, as either friends or colleagues or staff members? If yes, how would you explain to them your support for this amendment? If not, how would you explain to a gay person your support for this amendment?
12. You oppose abortion. If re-elected, will you advocate for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion? Would you state for the record, yes or no: do you support overturning Roe v. Wade?
13. Critics say the No Child Left Behind Act only tells us what we already know – which schools are failing and which are not. Should the federal government be spending billions to test, rather than remediate the problems in schools such as declining infrastructures, outdated books and materials, and underpaid teachers?
14. Critics, including Sen. Kerry, say your administration has underfunded the No Child Left Behind Act by billions of dollars. Is this program a success, and if so, why not fully fund it or even dedicate more money to it?
15. Your vice president, Dick Cheney, led an energy task force to study energy options. Critics complain that the task force operated in secrecy, and that it was dominated by energy executives. First, should task forces operate in public view? And, second what specific recommendations from the Cheney task force will help solve America's energy crisis?
16. You said four years ago that Christ was your favorite philosopher. Among mortals, is there a political leader, poet, revolutionary or other person whose writings or actions you greatly admire?
There are many, many more questions the president would prefer not to answer. It will also be interesting to see how many times, in an attempt to get back to more comfortable terrain Bush manages to work Sept. 11 into a non-foreign policy debate. (I'd peg the over-under is seven mentions.)
Whatever happens in Tempe, at this point the race essentially now comes down to a battle between the field campaigns – unless the president gets a question tomorrow night that he can't field, gets aggravated, and re-opens the wounds he self-inflicted in Miami.
As if making a last-ditch attempt to sneak away and avoid being seen in this company, the American flag flops off the chalkboard behind the raven-haired beauty, breaking free from some duct tape securing it. It half-dangles below where "Welcome Michelle Malkin" has been scrawled in chalk by the University of California, Berkeley College Republicans.
Malkin scrunches her face, determined not to be silenced – not by the contingent of gigglers in the audience, nor the protesters outside with their rhyming chants and not entirely relevant ("We Need a Worker's Party") signs. In the little time we have together, she is here to warn us of a "radical alliance," of Japanese-American civil libertarians teaming up with Arab-Americans to betray America. They're doing it by incessantly comparing the barbed-wire internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II with the treatment of Arab citizens today: racial profiling, due process suspensions for "enemy combatants."
"In a post-Sept. 11 world," Malkin says, "we can no longer afford the indulgent abuse of history as multicultural group therapy." And now the two groups "have declared solidarity with each other," she says.
The audience is pumped. Damn those indulgent Japanese – maybe we should intern them again! Or, to use Malkin's term, "evacuate," like the people fleeing Hurricane Ivan. Usher them far, far away from the Arabs and their insidious group therapy craze.
You know, for their own protection.
But not for protection from racist hysteria, the internment excuse revived last year by U.S. Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), to widespread disgust. Malkin's book, "In Defense of Internment," sidesteps Coble's rationale, dismissing racism as a factor completely. (Here in California, however, locking up the Japanese and forcing them to sell their land cheap was welcomed by whites as the long-awaited follow-up to the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924. That law followed warnings by the Michelle Malkins of the time that the Mikado's "brown hordes" were poised to subjugate the Bay Area.)
The spell breaks, however, as the duct tape plastering up Old Glory succumbs to the vibrations of the walls. Protesters are stomping in the halls outside. They're trying to edge past a few brave College Republicans, arms akimbo, who have appointed themselves "security," the last line of defense between the protesters and Ms. Malkin. Later they tell tales of the liberals getting in their face, of their opponents' lack of Right Guard and the capacity for abstract thought required to grapple with the works of Malkin, the Fox News Channel historian. For Malkin, having feverishly pored over declassified documents, claims to have reversed over 50 years of standing historical thought in only 16 months, by the calculation of University of North Carolina professor Eric Muller, a vocal Malkin critic.
Now and then the doors blow open to underscore, by the roar of the crowd outside, the Malkin speech, which is taking on "one of the most critical national security issues facing our country" (according to the red-headed girl who introduces Malkin). The protesters are indulging the Berkeley tradition of drowning out speeches by right-wingers they disagree with. It's a custom that the likes of David Horowitz have counted on for headlines as free speech heroes. As Malkin says of the rabble: "What are they afraid of?" For the innocent would have nothing to fear in a Malkin Administration.
But the sexy revisionist will have to wait until that Sunday for her headline. That's when the Washington Post reports that another campus has canceled her stop, leaving the helpless youth of American University in Washington abandoned behind the Iron Curtain of left-wing orthodoxy. "Staff members for the Bush campaign have frowned on us for having an event centered on the internment of Japanese Americans," Mike Inganamort, president of the club, writes in an e-mail to her. This hot campus cause is "an issue we frankly cannot defend at our heart of hearts," he says.
Tonight, however, the night is all Malkin's. She's on a roll because her honor has just been defended on television by U.S. senator Zell Miller (D-GA), who tells Chris Matthews he saw what the Hardball host had done to "that young lady," and said it would be good for the two men to duel. Tonight, in the tone of a school board member who has grown tired of explaining the policy that expelled your kid, she says of the internment, with an intimidating head tilt: "It was a tough call!"
And tonight Malkin, as Whitney Houston sang, believes the children are our future. "These are the students who are going to be making our Homeland Security issues in the future," she says, with yearning in her voice, of the audience.
She dreams of a time when children won't just be taught to relate to Japanese kids behind barbed wire at camps, but to the officials who put them there. To teach otherwise, she says, is "educational malpractice."
Apparently American University's Republicans are not quite so stoked for the future Malkin envisions – in which a wiser generation of teachers will allow fourth-graders to role-play being internment decision-makers. Who gets to be Chase Clark, the Idaho governor who brainstormed at the time, "Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats?"
Berkeley's College Republicans, however, pride themselves on being at the bleeding edge. Besides the now-standard "bake sales" that mock affirmative action by charging whites extra for muffins, they've printed trading cards of Berkeley's homeless, taking a stand against the poor and the weird. Such gestures, like inviting Malkin, foster debate, they say.
The night after the Malkin appearance, a campus meeting for the group is packed. Conventional wisdom is that Cal's rise in conservatism stems from a greater proportion of Asian kids at the school. But this crowd, at least, doesn't bear out the theory. Inviting Malkin can't have helped.
Announcements include some talk of rival frat parties, then laughter at an e-mail from a Mass Communications professor, Dr. Jonathan Gray, who has hilariously suggested that the Washington Post is more reliable than Fox News, a source Gray brands "pathetic." The word brings gasps. The crowd howls when the student reading the letter comes to the part about how Fox viewers are more likely to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
"Do we have Students for Academic Freedom on campus?" someone asks, referring to the group that watchdogs professors for signs of liberalism. The answer is yes.
"Does anyone not know what the Drudge Report is?" asks host Andrea of the group, as if making sure everyone has the syllabus.
Now the floor is opened up to what Andrea calls "the Malkin discussion." But there isn't so much a debate as a feeling of epiphany. Rhianna, the treasurer, responds to one of Malkin's more misleading assertions: "I didn't know that like 50 percent of the people in camps were white! It's not in our textbook at all!"
And Andrea tells of confronting protesters, only to realize they were woefully underinformed. They'd only heard the title, In Defense of Internment, and assumed it was something else. And when told what it was really about, she says, they realized of Malkin's thesis, "Oh well, it wasn't as bad as we thought," in her words.
Beyond that, everyone seems to think it was pretty cool. They're much more interested in sharing war stories from the front – fighting off the "nasty liberals outside" with their sweat stains. "A thousand pansy guys with excessive facial hair," describes a guy named Jeb, to laughter. "Two people tried to get in my face!" says Josiah, a handsome boy in a polo shirt, pantomiming how it happened. There's talk of a protester with a sign reading, "Berkeley Coward Republicans." ("Why?" "Because none of us were willing to go to war," says one of the leaders. An awkward pause follows.)
These are the apple-cheeked athletes who form the central clique of the group, along with a scattering of Republican Geeks who fidget on their periphery, wonks with the vibes of potential Grover Norquists.
Fringes of the Fringe
Gathering further towards the fringes, as we leave to head for the campus bar to watch the Packers game, is an even shyer group, the Michael Savage fans. They're sharing their favorite moments when Savage reportedly stuck it to someone or other. They agree that he might be "a little too-right wing" sometimes (like when he mocked homeless ladies with shopping carts), but admire him because "he speaks his mind."
There are also unassuming new recruits like John, a quiet young freshman from Los Angeles. Why'd he join? "The whole atmosphere," he says. "You just want a normal school atmosphere..."
The lack of normalcy here at Berkeley is well-documented. On the other hand... well, surely someone has to disagree with Michelle Malkin, right? Such was the spell cast by her visit that you'd think Ronald Reagan had never called internment "a grave injustice."
Down at the pub, I talk to Nick, a Ben Affleck type hitting on a Democratic chick friend of his. He says he normally wouldn't talk to a media guy like me, except that he's wavering from a few drinks. Anyway, he has no real objections to Malkin. So, I move deeper into the crowd at the Bear's Lair, and the Republicans I find mostly just repeat Malkin's lines.
Curious. I pull aside political science major Jeff Bauer (no relation to Gary), who seems to have given it more thought than the others. It pains him, but he'd have to say the government made the right call – the tough call. What would he say to someone humiliated by having being herded into a camp? "I would say, in the most sincere way, 'You took one for the country,'" he says. I thank him and he returns to watching the Packers game.
Finally I sit down with the executive director of the group, third-year student Amaury Gallais, who admires Malkin as "loving mother" to her own offspring. I run past him the possibility that Malkin, who is Filipina-American (since we're in Malkin's 1940s groove of analyzing behavior by race) just resents the Japanese for savaging the Philippines.
He doesn't think so. Internment, he says, "prevented Japanese-American citizens from helping our enemies." He cites Malkin's studies, which describe intercepted "MAGIC" telegrams supposedly proving a military need to round up American citizens. Usually characterized as the last resort of cranks less ravishing than Michelle Malkin, the MAGIC defense has been consistently rejected by such P.C. handwringers as Lt. Col. James C. McNaughton, the Command Historian in charge of the U.S. Army's official history of the Pacific.
So why not lock up all Arab citizens, I ask, since a few people resembling them have actually gone to the trouble of forming terror cells, as opposed to the scattered incidents of "disloyalty" Malkin cites among the Japanese. Would it bother him if we did?
"The overwhelming majority of Arabs are not enemies," he says. "They love peace. They love the freedom that we provide."
Will they love it if we provide a lot less of it? Because that's what syndicated columnist John Leo seems to be floating, now that Malkin has tested the waters of revisionism. Finding the water is just fine, Leo wades right on in, opining in a September 19 column that internment has been a "taboo" for far too long. It's "reasonable and important," he concludes, "to open an honest discussion of internment, past and present."
Now that the schedule and format for the three presidential debates appears to be set, the conventional wisdom seems to be that President Bush won the debate about the debates by a small margin, much like many predictions of how he will fare against John Kerry on Nov. 2.
Sure, Bush gave up on his demand to have just two debates, but insider accounts suggest his representatives, led by James Baker III, didn't really put up much of a fight on this front, so it can't be that much of a loss. This seems more like one of those things you give up in a negotiation to get something else.
So what did Bush get? Two things. One, the first, and typically most watched, debate will focus on foreign policy and national security, issues where polls show he has a solid advantage over Kerry, and which voters typically trust Republicans more than Democrats.
Two, the "town hall" format of the second debate will be heavily regulated. The regular folks asking questions will have to submit their questions in advance to the moderator; the audience will be comprised of either "soft" Bush or "soft" Kerry supporters instead of pure undecideds; and there will be no follow-up questions.
(Microphones will be cut off immediately after the question is asked, and then presumably some UPenn thug – not to be confused with the three Quaker grads that edit and produce Gadflyer – will drag the miscreant out by the hair and beat them to a bloody pulp.)
While it's true that these things may be advantageous to Bush, it's also quite possible that this may be a case of "be careful what you wish for."
Whose bar is set low this time?
Start with the first debate on security and foreign affairs, slated to be in Coral Gables, Fla. True, these are issues voters think Republicans are better at handling than Democrats, and on which they have more confidence in Bush than in Kerry. Bush will no doubt pound Kerry as a flip-flopper too indecisive to lead the country in wartime. And no one – not the White House, not voters, and certainly not the press – thinks Kerry can offer a concise, coherent explanation for his seemingly contradictory positions on the war in Iraq over the last two years.
And therein lays his opening. Despite the fact that debates are the most substantive moments in a presidential campaign, the best chance for voters to really learn something from the candidates about what kind of leader they would be, the press doesn't report on any of that. Instead, they play the "expectations game," reducing their post-debate analysis to who "won" or "lost" instead of whether what they said made any sense.
In this case, it would be difficult for the bar to be set any lower for Kerry. The consensus is that he has already proven that he simply cannot give a direct answer on Iraq.
But as President Bush knows better than anyone, exceeding what might be called the soft bigotry of low media expectations is remarkably easy and pays huge dividends politically.
After all, the one question that will define this debate is the one Kerry knows is coming: How do you reconcile your vote giving the President war authority with your vote against funding that effort, or your statement in August that you'd still make the initial vote if you had it to do over again with your comment on the Imus show that there is no circumstance in which this war was worth fighting?
But precisely because he knows it's coming, Kerry should have an answer. Frankly, I'm not sure what it could be, or how he could reduce it to a soundbite as he will have to. But Kerry has proven in the past – notably during his hotly contested race for reelection against William Weld in 1996 – that he can be a highly skilled communicator during a debate.
Let's be clear: The August comment seemingly contradicting his entire critique of Bush's waging war in Iraq could be enough to cost Kerry the election. The Coral Gables forum is thus quite simply his last, best chance - before the largest audience he will ever get - to explain himself, offer a reasonable alternative plan for Iraq and the war on terror, and prove to voters he's capable of being commander in chief.
If he doesn't pull it off, the election truly could be over. But if he does, if he answers that one question deftly, he will have "won" the debate by exceeding media expectations.
At that point the debate could become Bush's worst nightmare. In addition to being about expectations, debates come down to which candidate rises above the negative stereotype hung on them by the press and their opponent, and which one has that image reinforced. Swatting away the "flip-flopper" label would allow Kerry to turn the attention on Bush, casting him as a stubborn Pollyanna who misled the American people and has tragically mismanaged not one, but two wars.
Make no mistake, the president is very vulnerable on this point. Polls show voters know Iraq is a mess and think Bush is responsible. Only a small minority think he's telling them the truth about the situation. Yet Bush's comments on Iraq of late are so wildly optimistic he runs the risk of opening a credibility gap between his rosy portrait and what people know to be true.
This became glaringly obvious on Wednesday when Bush gave his upbeat speech to the United Nations at virtually the same time terrorists beheaded the second American hostage in two days.
Bush hasn't had to face tough questions about these things (or anything else) on the campaign trail, where his audiences are carefully screened to make sure he isn't challenged. In these situations he's looked smooth and relaxed, leading to fawning media stories about how he's "hit his stride."
But this lack of practice dealing with pointed questions could backfire on him. We got a glimpse of this Wednesday when reporters asked him about the criticisms of his Iraq policy by conservative Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel, John McCain and Richard Lugar, and a gloomy CIA report on the future of Iraq. Bush's response to the former was pique and obfuscation: Both men "want me elected," as if that was the issue.
His answer to the latter bordered on delusion: "The CIA laid out several scenarios and said life could be lousy, life could be okay, and life could be better." In fact, the options were "tenuous stability," "further fragmentation and extremism," and "civil war." Merely lousy would be a dramatic improvement on any of these.
If Kerry can bring out in Bush this combination of belligerent tone and fantastical disconnect from reality it will be the president that looks foolish and will thus be playing defense into the next debate.
That match-up, tentatively scheduled for St. Louis, has been stripped of the kind of true spontaneous give and take that tripped up Bush's father in 1992 (where he got peevish with a questioner and looked at his watch twice to see how much longer he had to endure "10 more minutes of this crap" as he later described it). And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: the only debate Bush lost to Al Gore in 2000 was the one in which ordinary folks were allowed to grill the candidates.
Which raises an interesting point about these debates missed by many analysts. Recent research shows that Gore drew on the momentum from his "win" in that third and final debate in 2000 to surge from a solid deficit to a popular vote victory over Bush. Why? In large part because that debate focused on domestic issues, especially Social Security, that typically favor Democrats.
Gore spent the last two weeks of that campaign attacking Bush on Social Security, and received an accompanying windfall of largely positive news stories. Unfortunately for him, that coverage only served to boost his support in non-battleground states. Bush ran many more ads than Gore did in the competitive states and, studies show, thus won the Electoral College.
(Apologies to those who think that last sentence is based on a false premise.)
This year the last debate, although not a town hall format, will reportedly also focus on domestic issues. Assuming Kerry is still in the race, this could be a huge advantage: These are precisely the issues that favor Democrats and on which polls show Kerry has an advantage over Bush. If, like Gore, he can dominate that discussion and then parlay that win into two weeks of keeping the campaign agenda on his terms, he will have the advantage going into Election Day.
(And Democrats appear able to at least keep pace with GOP advertising in battlegrounds the final two weeks, so we shouldn't see a repeat of Gore's mistake in 2000.)
To put this in horse-race terms reporters would understand, this means the debates come down to this: Bush is hoping for a quick knockout, exposing Kerry as a hopeless flip-flopper in front of probably the largest audience of the campaign. But if Kerry can give a succinct and believable answer to just one question – how do you reconcile all of these apparent contradictions? – he will be in perfect position to put the President on the defensive and seize the advantage for the final month of the election.
According to recent news reports, the Bush campaign is attempting to reduce the number of debates the President has with John Kerry from the three proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates to only two. More specifically, they are attempting to eliminate the town hall style debate scheduled for October 8 in St. Louis.
Let us put aside the strong possibility that the Bush team's negotiating position has been constructed with an eye toward convincing reporters that Bush is afraid to debate Kerry, thus lowering expectations for the president and raising them for Kerry. If there is one debate that the president would rather skip, it's the town hall, because it calls Bush to do the things he is least capable of: responding to unpredictable questions, talking about a wide range of issues, and addressing the day-to-day concerns of real people. And it would be a shame, because the town hall is far and away the most entertaining and edifying format.
The town hall debate originated in 1992, when with the assistance of Gallup the Commission on Presidential Debates gathered a group of undecided voters in Richmond, Va. to quiz George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot about their positions and personalities. The format was perfectly suited to Bill Clinton's skills; he understood that viewers at home could connect with him by watching him connect with ordinary people. In what would become the debate's signature moment, President Bush found himself unable to answer a voter's question about how the national debt had affected him personally. Staying close to his podium, Bush struggled to figure out what she meant, finally saying with an awkward smile, "I'm not sure I get – help me with the question and I'll try to answer it." When it came time for Clinton to rebut, he walked over to the woman, looked in her eyes, and said, "Tell me how it's affected you." The election was effectively over.
But apart from what it revealed about the candidates, the Richmond debate – and the similar ones held in 1996 and 2000 – proved themselves to be the best thing the Commission could offer voters, for a few reasons.
Power to the People
First, it turned out that ordinary citizens ask much better questions than journalists. The pre-1992 format, in which a panel of journalists would question the candidate, was dominated by efforts to play "gotcha" – with their brief moment on the national stage, reporters often asked candidates questions of the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" variety in hopes of creating a compelling slip-up. They also focused on process, with questions about campaign strategy and tactics.
But the voters assembled for the town hall debates have done nothing of the sort. To a fault, their questions have been substantive and practical, focusing on issues and asking candidates to elaborate their positions and specify what actions they will take as president.
For Bush, this presents a problem: it's one thing to brush off a reporter with yet another recitation of a talking point ("We're safer... Saddam was a threat... we're turning the corner..."), since most voters think reporters are cynics just trying to get the candidates to slip up. But doing the same thing to a voter asking for some real answers doesn't make you look clever, it makes you look rude. Bush knows how to stay "on message" as well as any president in history, a talent that serves him well in many situations. But a town-hall debate isn't one of them.
The second distinction of town hall debates is that citizen questioners tend to cover much greater ground than journalist questioners. While reporters – who travel and think in a giant pack most of the time – tend to focus on the few issues that are dominating the campaign, citizens have brought concerns to the town-hall debate that a Washington journalist might never have thought of. For instance, in the 2000 town hall debate, Bush and Gore fielded questions about national health insurance, FDA procedures for approving new drugs, education, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, military overstretch, the Brady Law, family farms, low turnout among young people, taxes, affirmative action and the death penalty. Both campaigns can predict fairly accurately what questions a journalist will ask them. But you can never tell what an ordinary citizen is going to bring up.
And this too is a problem for President Bush. To put it charitably, his facility with the details of the myriad policy issues a president confronts has its limits. The citizen questioners bring an unpredictability to debates that plays right to Bush's weakness. As we've seen time and again, when Bush is forced to think on his feet the results range from the comical to the embarrassing. While some issues may allow him to fall back on tried-and-true sound bites even if he doesn't really know what he's talking about, the chances Bush will be thrown a curve ball – and come out looking silly – are fairly high.
There may be another reason Bush doesn't want a town hall debate: the one in 2000 was his worst performance by far. Although the press didn't interpret it this way at the time, there may not have been a debate since the Bentsen-Quayle matchup in 1988 in which one candidate so clearly outclassed his opponent. Bush came across as uninformed, confused, and at times even self-parodying. He repeatedly said the opposite of what he meant – "If I'm the president, we're going to have emergency room care, we're going have gag orders... I'm not so sure 80% of the people get the death tax. I know this, 100% will get it if I'm the president." Asked by an audience member "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?" Bush gave an answer about Medicare. Answering a question about health care, he said, "Insurance, that's a Washington term." When Gore interrupted him in one back-and-forth exchange, Bush said petulantly, "There are certain rules in this that we all agree to, but evidently rules don't mean anything."
In part as practice for a town hall debate, President Bush has been conducting town-hall meetings as he campaigns across the country. But these events, like all Bush appearances, are carefully restricted lest anyone who doesn't support Bush slip through. The assembled supporters are given the opportunity to speak to the President, but they're as likely to heap praise on him as ask a question; one said, "Mr. President, I don't have a question, I have three thank-yous. One, thank you for your availability to serve. Two, your candle is burning brightly. And three, thanks for accepting the call and answering the call to work for what's right in the country and in the world." Not exactly hard-hitting – and nothing that would help him prepare for a real town-hall debate.
Rather than risk a repeat of his 2000 town hall performance, Bush is apparently trying to eliminate the town hall debate altogether. His representatives have said that their concern is that Kerry partisans could infiltrate the debate. But they're probably just as worried that Bush might encounter an actual undecided voter.
Bush is at his best in front of an adoring crowd, where he can lean forward, look resolute and deliver declarations he's repeated dozens of times before, safe in the knowledge they'll be greeted with thunderous applause. But in a town-hall debate, applause lines are greeted with a skeptical silence and evasion can prove costly. Bush's strengths will be of little use, and his weaknesses will be cast in high relief.
When Larry King asked Bush whether he runs into undecided voters on the campaign trail, Bush responded candidly, "The president generally doesn't run into anybody." That could be his biggest problem – and why he's afraid of whom he'd run into if he showed up in St. Louis.
In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had a gift for the women of Afghanistan. What did your tax dollars bestow upon half the population of a country where the majority of people don't have access to electricity, fresh water, sanitation, nutrition or the most basic life-saving medications? Twenty thousand battery operated, talking women's health books produced by Leapfrog, a "designer, developer and marketer of innovative, technology-based educational products and related proprietary content." A bargain at $62.50 a pop.
Listening to the administration, you might believe Afghanistan is a blooming democracy full of emancipated women and hopeful Olympic athletes. But while we send Afghans talking books, the real-life needs and underlying causes of the ongoing crises are being ignored, accelerating the situation in Afghanistan to the point of "implosion," to borrow language from a recent British Parliament report.
On the Precipice
The American press rarely reports the precipice upon which Afghanistan is poised. President George W. Bush makes frequent reference to the humanitarian advances in Afghanistan, especially among women. He offers platitudes, and smiles cheerily for photo-ops with soccer-playing Afghan girls as if their fates are somehow representative. But in every segment of Afghan life, there is glaring evidence of the gap between Bush's rhetoric and reality.
The thin veneer of liberation benefits those with power, money and guns, and unfortunately many of these people share the same ideology as the Taliban, albeit masked by their shaved faces, Western clothes, and facility with English rhetoric. In a telling moment of candor, Sebaghattullah Mujadiddi, the former, civil war-era president and chairman of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, told women in December 2003: "Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights under his decision two women are counted as one man."
Of the five million children who returned to school after the fall of the Taliban, only 34 percent are girls. Two to three thousand young women were removed from school in September 2003 when President Hamid Karzai upheld a 1970s law banning married "women" (no matter their age or whether the marriage was consensual) from attending school with unmarried "girls."
The peril of the situation is abundantly clear from observations and conversations with Afghans about post-Taliban life, where guns and money substitute for the rule of law; upcoming elections, rather than being celebrated as a sign of progress, are dreaded for the violence and fraud that is already accompanying them (see guns and money substitute for the rule of law); the United States has provided a $25 million loan to rebuild a five-star hotel, and warlords are using money from opium poppies and CIA payoffs for fighting the Taliban to build palatial private residences on stolen land, while teachers and government workers in Kabul can not afford the $100 per month rent for three rooms without water or electricity on their $30-a-month salaries.
It is a country teetering dangerously on the edge of a steep precipice.
Liberation or Retaliation?
The Afghan people knew all along that the United States bombed Afghanistan for retaliation, not liberation. Many Afghan women asked me in December 2001, "If the United States was so committed to liberating us, where was your government for the past five years? Why did then Governor Bush invite Taliban officials to Texas? Why was the Clinton Administration trying to negotiate a pipeline while we were being beaten on the streets for showing our faces?" And now they ask: "Why did your government return the same criminals who destroyed our country in the civil war, and who were so brutal and repressive that the Taliban was welcomed in 1996 as liberating heroes?"
While 18,000 American and allied soldiers spend their time unsuccessfully searching for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar the missing weapons of mass destruction from the Afghan conflict only 6,500 NATO peacekeepers are on the ground to protect a population estimated to be 25 million to 28 million. This ratio of one peacekeeper per 4,000 Afghans is nothing like the 1:50 ratio that was maintained in Bosnia and Kosovo, and is laughable to a warlord and, until recently, provincial governor like Ismail Khan, whose personal army of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers dwarfs the peacekeepers. President Karzai's attempt to control him by removing him as governor and promoting him to Minster of Mines and Industry last week was rejected by Khan and sparked deadly attacks on U.N., U.S. and Afghan interests in Herat.
With at least 1,000 civilians (including 600 aid and election workers) killed in the past year alone and rockets falling nightly on Kabul, it is clear to the populace that America is there to serve its own interests, with little concern for Afghan security, democracy or peace. Even President Karzai has admitted that the warlords, whom the United States has supported since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, pose a greater threat to the country than Taliban resurgents.
The depth of the problem is clear when a group like Doctors Without Borders, who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Taliban period, recently pulled out of the country entirely, having been unable to obtain justice for the killings of five of their workers. They no longer believed their Afghan and foreign staff could be protected.
The Bush Definition of an Election
The election preparations, financed predominately by the United States and Britain at a cost of $100 million, are based on 24-year-old census data because, without disarmament, the country was not secure enough to take a new census. This calls into question the celebratory mood surrounding the United Nation's announcement that over 90 percent of "eligible" voters had been registered in advance of the thrice-postponed, October 9 presidential election (parliamentary elections are off until at least April).
That 90 percent figure is also questionable when one considers that nearly half of the country has been deemed at elevated risk by the United Nations, and much of these risky areas are entirely off limits to U.N. workers. Even more astonishing is the recent upward revision of these registration figures. Now the U.N. figures show that over 107 percent of eligible voters have been registered to vote. In response, President Karzai, a leading candidate, responded: "This does not bother me. This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice."
This early whiff of voter fraud, and of a government and international community unable and unwilling to address it, coupled with targeted killings of at least 30 election workers and registered voters so far, and signs that this violence will continue to escalate as the elections draw closer, make it unlikely that election reality will match the rhetoric of a free and fair democratic process.
A Dangerous Game
In 2003 Iraq received $26 billion in reconstruction aid while Afghanistan, larger and more populous and with a fraction of Iraq's wealth and infrastructure, received less than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the 2003 opium crop brought an estimated $2.3 billion, accounting for roughly 95 percent of the heroin sold on the streets of Europe. And the Bush administration admits that the 2004 crop is expected to be 50 percent to 100 percent higher than last year's.
All of this illegitimate wealth only serves to further enrich criminal elements, from the warlords who control the countryside to suspected al Qaeda remnants rumored to be funding future operations with this uncontrolled wealth. Taken together it is an alarming picture of a country spiraling out of control. Meanwhile, the American political calendar ensures that we will hear predominately heartwarming stories of how children's toys better Afghan lives.
By playing leapfrog with Afghanistan, the Bush Administration jeopardizes the safety and health of poor Afghans who will suffer if their country once again becomes hostage to narco-terrorists, warlords and unlawful rulers. Humanitarian concerns aside, the policies also threaten to destabilize the country in ways that, as we've seen, lead to tragic consequences for the rest of the world, too. When your playmate is a country teetering on the edge of a chasm, leapfrog is the most dangerous game of all.
He's strong. He's resolute. He looks evildoers in the eye and doesn't blink. He's our national daddy, standing in the doorway with a righteous six-gun and a steely gaze, striking fear in the hearts of all who would do us harm. By god, George W. Bush is a real man.
Or is he? We certainly know that Bush wants us to believe he's a real man - in fact, there are few things he works harder at. Sometimes it seems as if the entire might of the United States government is being wielded for the purpose of creating photo ops where Bush can look manly. We saw plenty of examples at the Republican convention; the video introducing Bush, narrated with the profound vocal stylings of actor/politician Fred Thompson, begins this way: "How do you tell the story of a presidency? How do you tell the story so far? The story is, in part, but inescapably, the story of a man."
Despit being billed as a "biography," the video told virtually nothing about what Bush has actually done in the last four years, let alone his life to that point; instead, it was mostly about Bush's September 11-related moments of theater. For the umpteenth time, we saw Bush vowing revenge through a bullhorn at Ground Zero; then Bush being photographed visiting soldiers in the hospital. The film ends with an extended retelling of Bush going to Yankee Stadium and throwing out the first ball at a World Series game not long after September 11, presented with swelling music and slow-motion, as though his ability to walk to the mound and throw the ball was some act of extraordinary heroism of which no mere mortal would have been capable.
And in his convention speech, Bush reemphasized his masculinity. "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger," he said, "which in Texas is called walking." There's certainly a swagger in Bush's walk, but what is most notable about it is how affected it is. It's not about being strong, it's about looking strong.
Who's Your Daddy?
New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently noted that "castration warfare has been a Republican staple ever since Michael Dukakis provided the opening by dressing up like Snoopy to ride a tank." Democrats are understandably frustrated that Bush has been so successful at painting John Kerry as the one possessed of insufficient testosterone, down to calling his Vietnam service into question. After all, when their country called them to go into harm's way, Kerry said, "Where do I sign?" while Bush said, "How do I get out of this?"
Vietnam was hardly the last time Bush would show himself to be something of a sissy-boy. In fact, when you begin to think about his history, an unmistakable picture emerges: George W. Bush is a coward.
I do not use the word lightly. Speaking as someone born too late to be drafted, I can't say whether I would have been brave enough to follow John Kerry's course into Vietnam. But Bush's cowardice doesn't only emerge when his physical safety is at stake (although he's quite happy to proclaim his courageous indifference to dangers that will be faced by others, i.e. "Bring 'em on"). Let's look at some other cases:
- When Bush was told that America was under attack by terrorists, he froze like a deer in the headlights, sitting there listening to "My Pet Goat" for seven interminable minutes before someone came and told him it was OK for him to get up and start doing something presidential. Ask a Bush partisan about this and their spinning will generate enough centrifugal force to suck in anything in the room that isn't bolted down. He was trying to reassure the children, they'll say, and project strength. When Ari Fleischer held up a sign that read, "Don't say anything yet," a real man would not have complied, as Bush did. A real man would have stood up, said, "It's been wonderful to meet you children, but I have to go" and gone to check on the status of the country he was supposed to be leading.
- When the September 11 commission wanted to question the President, he ran like a little girl who just saw a spider. First, he said he wouldn't testify. Then he said he'd talk to them, but not under oath, and only for an hour. Finally he agreed, but only so long as no one recorded the session, and Dick Cheney came along to bail him out if things got uncomfortable. These weren't just the actions of a man who had something to hide, they were the actions of a man afraid to answer for what he did and didn't do. And what kind of a wimp can't be questioned without his vice president by his side?
- Bush has held only twelve solo press conferences in his presidency, fewer than any other modern president, and you can rest assured there won't be another one between now and November. A real man would take questions from the press, even if some of them are going to be confrontational.
- At his last disastrous press conference, Bush couldn't bring himself to admit to a single mistake he had made in office. Real men admit it when they're wrong.
- No undecided voters – let alone Democrats – are allowed into Bush campaign events, lest the farcical "Ask the President" events include a question that is not accompanied by fulsome praise of Bush's greatness. A real man would have the guts to encounter voters who don't already love him.
- Bush's representatives are now pushing to eliminate from the schedule of debates the "town hall" scheduled to take place in St. Louis. According to news reports, they are concerned that, though the audience is supposed to consist of undecided voters, a Kerry supporter might sneak in and get to ask a question. What kind of a wimp is scared of answering a question from someone who supports his opponent? After all, Bush is supposed to be the president of all Americans not just those who support him. But he doesn't seem to have the guts to look voters in the eye.
Since September 11, polls have shown President Bush rating particularly high on whether voters perceive him to be a "strong leader." And there's no doubt that Bush knows how to appear strong; put him in a flight suit or a cowboy outfit and he's in seventh heaven; the frontier-justice catch phrases will tumble from his lips – dead or alive, smoke 'em out, get 'em runnin'. But when it comes time to actually demonstrate strength, Bush withers and fades.
And of course, he was a cheerleader in high school. How girlie is that?