Friday, May 27, 2005

Rights of the minority

As Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice landed in Baghdad last week, there was much at stake. The neoconservative Jihad that the Bush administration launched in the wake of 9/11 has not been going well. Gone are the dreams of a Shock and Awe campaign that would stun the combatants into submission. Gone are the visions of Iraqis greeting our GIs with garlands of flowers and working speedily to embrace their democratic future. Despite the protestations of the administration and its minions, the media has declined to show the positive stories of reconstruction at anything near the rate of the stories about the insurrection, car bombings and steadily increasing American deaths.

Condi Rice’s mission in Iraq was clear, to induce the Shia and Kurdish leaders to take bold steps to be inclusive of the Sunni minority in the government and in the drafting of a new constitution. The Sunni Iraqis in large measure boycotted the much-heralded national elections, but even if they were represented in the national assembly at a level commensurate with their 20% share of the population, under any traditional democratic rubric their power would be severely limited. But Rice was making a more fundamental point: to create a successful democratic state, inclusion of minority voices and provision for minority rights was essential.

One Shia leader––who like the rest of the world can watch U.S. democracy on TV––resisted the notion that they should show grace in victory and suggested that they were treating the Sunnis with more deference than the Bush administration was treating the Democrats, who received almost half of the vote. And despite the continuing protestations by conservative Christians of their victimization at the hands of the collective tyrannies of the judiciary, the media and Hollywood, the Shia can make a fair case that they suffered even greater depredation at the hands of the Sunni leadership during the 35-year rule of Saddam Hussein.

Democracy is a frustrating institution, and all the more so it seems for majority parties who are forced to accommodate the demands of a pesky minority. This week in Washington, we watched as an eleventh-hour deal was orchestrated in the Senate by a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats that provided for up-or-down votes on the Senate floor for some, but not all, of the administration’s blocked judicial nominees. Reacting to the news of a resolution of the stand-off, the White House disavowed any embrace of compromise as Press Secretary Scott McClelland announced that they “will continue working to push for an up-or-down vote on all our nominees.”

Later, however, it became apparent that the White House was complicit in the deal. It appears that when it became clear that the Republicans lacked the votes to pull the nuclear trigger, the White House dispatched Senators Lindsay Graham and Mike DeWine to negotiate a deal. McClelland, it seemed, was grandstanding to the Party base, and the White House was quite willing to pull the rug out from under the senators that were doing its bidding and leave them twisting slowly in the wind in the face of right wing cries of cowardice and duplicity.

How now does Condi Rice convince the Shia and their Kurdish allies to give voice––and power––to the Sunni when they have the votes, as it were, to prevail? Up-or-down votes and majority rule are all the rage back home, as Thursday night’s successful Democratic filibuster of the John Bolton confirmation as U.N. Secretary reignited Republican anger at their own impotence in the face of a Constitutionally-empowered minority. McClelland––yes, the same partisan who declined to embrace the compromise on judges a few days earlier––decried the loss of the good feelings from earlier in the week, noting that “Just 72 hours after all the good will and bipartisanship, it's disappointing to see the Democratic leadership resort back to such a partisan approach.”

To add some needed nuance to the debate, the rip tide of support on the right for simple majority votes may ebb somewhat in the coming weeks. After the House this week passed a stem cell research bill against White House objections, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, one of many 2008 aspirants––a 100-1 shot today at for those wagering the race––announced his intention to filibuster the companion stem bill if it reaches the floor of the Senate. Perhaps the use of the filibuster by a senator in the name of appeasing the right wing will make the hypocrisy of the up-or-down vote rhetoric just a bit too obvious.

What the Shia understand all too well is that building democratic institutions is not about good will or being graceful in victory, it is about giving power to a minority that they deeply distrust and at whose hands they have suffered. As they meet with the Secretary of State, they must ask how if the Bush administration cannot abide minority rights at home, it can in good faith demand their embrace abroad.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Qur'an in the toilet wasn't the story

Those who have a habit of sleeping during the late night hours may have missed Michael Isikoff on Charlie Rose on Monday night. It was a fascinating interview.

Michael Isikoff is the Newsweek reporter who, along with Defense Department reporter John Barry, wrote a two-paragraph Periscope story in the May 9th issue that started a firestorm domestically, to say nothing of riots in northern Afganistan. The topic of the story was the pending release of the results of a probe of “interrogation abuses” of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Newsweek sources suggested that “interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.” Other abuses included “one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee’s hair and sat on the detainee’s lap” and another instance in which “a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee’s face, telling him it was menstrual blood.”

[I am going to set aside for the moment how fundamentally bizarre all of this is. I mean, torture has been an area of human subject research for millennia, and this is what we have come to? Dog leashes, lap dancing and menstrual blood? Do they have data that suggests that any of this interrogation technique works? Is the point here to gin up material for Jon Steward, or what?]

The story of the Qur’an in the toilet was the offending line, and apparently was not in the probe report. The administration spokesmen moved swiftly to deny the incident and demand a retraction from Newsweek––which complied and acknowledged having failed to confirm its second source––while their Praetorian Guard took to the airways to rain holy hell on the magazine.

Following Rathergate, the opportunity to expose once again the America-hating agenda of the liberal media was too much to let pass, and during the past few days while driving the high mesa of New Mexico I have been regaled by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Praeger each dancing the Macarena on Newsweek’s corpse. It was notable, however, that until I saw Charlie Rose, I was not aware that Isikoff was the offending scribe. I attributed the preference to jump on Newsweek rather than the reporters by name to the deep sense of obligation that Rush and his running buddies owe to Michael Isikoff, as he, if memory serves, was involved in breaking the story of the semen on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress that brought Bill Clinton to justice and Rush to the top of the charts.

The fascinating aspect of the Isikoff’s conversation with Charlie Rose is that the Qur’an incident was the last item in the story that Isikoff and Barry thought would raise the administration’s hackles. Rather, it was the second paragraph that led them to seek Pentagon confirmation of the story. The first line of the second paragraph notes that the findings of the pending report “could put former Gitmo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller on the hot seat.”

General Miller was the commander in charge of interrogations at Gitmo, and was subsequently sent to Iraq to lead the effort at Abu Gra’ib. The report allegedly cites FBI e-mails quarreling with Miller over the aggressive interrogation techniques being used at Gitmo, but conceding that Miller had his “marching orders from the Secretary of Defense.” Isikoff was surprised at the Qur’an uproar because he and his colleague expected that the offending aspect of the story was the direct link that the probe report suggested between interrogation abuse in Iraq, the famous memo from then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez exempting the prisoners from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and the concurrence of the President in the investigation techniques.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Senator Frank Rizzo

“I would like to thank my friend, the honorable faggot from Maine…” So went the joke some twenty-five years ago when Philadelphians imagined Frank Rizzo’s conduct on the floor of the United States Senate, were he to succeed the then-retiring Senate Majority Leader Hugh Scott. Rizzo, the man who pledged as Mayor to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” just seemed to lack the necessary grace and decorum to wander the cloakrooms of that august institution.

The United States Senate. The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Well, maybe after Tuesday we can put that self-effacing moniker to rest. And on second thought, after our junior Senator Rick Santorum effectively referred to Harry Reid as “my good friend, the Nazi from Nevada,” maybe we should have sent the Big Bambino to Washington when we had the chance. At least he had a sense of humor. This is an historic week coming up. This may be the week that the U.S. Senate, like an institutional Humpty Dumpty, falls off the wall and lands foursquare in the cesspool that has become our national politics.

During the Clinton years, judicial and other nominations were frequently bottled up in Senate committees, so there is nothing new with the problems facing the Bush nominees. The filibuster on the floor was generally not necessary, as "blue slip" rules enabled any single senator to block a judge from an up or down vote, regardless of the degree of support for them on the floor of the Senate. The filibuster was famous as a powerful tool of southern Democrats in their efforts to oppose civil rights legislation, but it was just one tool in the arcane Senate rule book that gave power to the minority.

The change that will be sought this week––the elimination of the judicial filibuster––will be dramatic because it comes in the wake of the elimination of other rules, such as the blue slip rule itself, that gave power to the minority party. By pushing ahead on the nuclear option, this President and this Republican Party have determined that the final destruction of the Senate as it was created--the collegial and deliberative body that moved slowly and cooled the passions of the day--is a reasonable price to pay to assure that they retain total control over the upcoming Supreme Court appointments. Caught up in its own rhetoric of victimization and drunk with the power of the moment, the right wing of the Republican Party cannot allow the opportunity to be missed it its pursuit of its agenda.

In this Senate fight, the junior senators are the firebrands. John Thune of South Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas, and their compatriots are first-term senators whose mettle for battle is untempered by a reverence for institutional history. Others, like Rick Santorum, have little loyalty to the Senate as an institution, with its rules and formality and rituals, if it does not serve their higher mission. Many of them came from the House, where they came to power in the Gingrich revolution and are true believers in transforming American politics. They despise the condescending old guard, led by their good friend, the octogenarian Senator from West Virginia Robert Byrd. They cannot abide the duplicity of the moderates like their good friend, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. And they are waiting for the day that they can deliver the death blow to the wife of their arch-demon, their good friend, the Senator from New York.

This is a radical vote, and all the more so because it comes at the hands of elements of our democracy who for so many years were themselves the aggrieved minority and who relied upon the Senatorial rules to assert their will. The southern segregationists in the 1960s using the filibuster. Jesse Helms blocking votes on any judicial appointment from his state during the Clinton Presidency. Oren Hatch orchestrating the blue slip rules.

And that is the irony. What is cast as a vote in the name of ending judicial tyranny and moving the nation back toward a jurisprudence of original intent is itself a vote to undermine the very essence of the Senate as that institution was created over two centuries ago. Through this vote the careful balance of power conceived in Philadelphia will be shunted aside for a more simple formulation: one person, one vote. There is an elegant, almost democratic logic to it. But only the older Senators really understand how much is about to be lost, and it remains to see if any of them––John McCain, John Warner, Chuck Hagel, Arlen Specter, George Voinovich, Dick Lugar––stand up and join with the remaining New England Republicans to stand for nation over party and preserve the Senate as at least a shadow of its former self.

Saving that, the Senate will become just another legislative body, and in this partisan moment minorities will have no voice unless they choose to go along. The stakes going forward will be higher, the voices of moderation will be few, and as Frank Rizzo would have it, you will only call someone your friend if in fact they really are.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Municipal Corruption Awards


In honor of the end of the municipal corruption trial in Philadelphia this week, the Commission of Inquiry into Corruption in American Society announced the designation of its third annual Hughie Awards.

The F. Joseph Loeper Good Soldier Award. Given to the public servant who achieves notoriety for corrupt acts that are material, yet which pale in comparison to the corruption of those for whom they toil.

The 2005 Good Soldier Award is given to Corey Kemp, City of Philadelphia for accepting free vacations, a low interest bank loan and a sun porch in return for supporting Commerce Bank in winning business with the City. Ron White and John Street, Mentors and Sponsors.

The Edwin W. Edwards Award for Innovation in Corrupt Practices. Given to the public servant who finds new ways of exploiting the power of their public position to realize a financial, material or political benefits.

The 2005 Innovation in Corrupt Practices Award is given to Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Fumo for his ability to win a $17 million donation from PECO Energy to Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a non-profit corporation staffed by aids to the Senator, in exchange for dropping his opposition to a PECO merger and utility rate hikes. Fumo’s efforts have led to the formation of new non-profit corporations by other legislators, and new waves of corporate contributions are sure to follow.

The Robert Moses Unmitigated Gall Award. Given to the public servant who exercise of anti-competitive and corrupt practices on behalf of private interests shows brazen disregard for public admonition, conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety.

The 2005 Unmitigated Gall Award is given to Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense for his award of billions of dollars of no-bid contracts to the Halliburton Corporation, despite close financial connections with the administration, costs well in excess of those proposed by competing firms and conflicts of interest of cinematic proportions. Richard Cheney and George Bush, Mentors and Sponsors.

The Bill McCollum Irrelevance in Prosecution Award. Given to the law enforcement official or agency whose pursuit of justice moves off in pursuit of the trees while ignoring the forest around them.

The 2005 Irrelevance in Prosecution Award is given to the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose prosecution of pay-to-play practices successfully assured the reelection of the administration under investigation, and after years of surveillance failed to achieve the indictment of a single politician of consequence in the city known as the home of municipal corruption in the United States.

About the Hughies. The Hughies awards have sought to recognize the enduring traditions of corrupt practices in local government in the United States.