WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration is laying out a new secrecy defense in an effort to end a court battle about the White House visits of now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The administration agreed last year to produce all responsive records about the visits "without redactions or claims of exemption," according to a court order.
But in a court filing Friday night, administration lawyers said that the Secret Service has identified a category of highly sensitive documents that might contain information sought in a lawsuit about Abramoff's trips to the White House.
The Justice Department, citing a Cold War-era court ruling, declared that the contents of the "Sensitive Security Records" cannot be publicly revealed even though they could show whether Abramoff made more visits to the White House than those already acknowledged.
"The simple act of doing so ... would reveal sensitive information about the methods used by the Secret Service to carry out its protective function," the Justice Department argued.
"This is an extraordinary development and it raises the specter that there were additional contacts with President Bush or other high White House officials that have yet to be disclosed," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that filed the suit. "We've alleged that the government has committed misconduct in this litigation and frankly this is more fuel for that fire."
The White House had no immediate comment Saturday.
Sensitive Security Records are created in the course of conducting more extensive background checks on certain visitors to the White House. In sworn statements accompanying the filing, two Secret Service officers said the extra attention is paid to some visitors because of their background, "the circumstances of the visits" or both.
The Sensitive Security Records were discovered in the course of another lawsuit seeking similar records, the court papers state.
Another private group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also has requested Secret Service records of Abramoff's White House visits. On Friday, the Justice Department asked for a consolidation of the two cases. Such a move would take the CREW case from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth and give it to Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, an appointee of the current president who is hearing the Judicial Watch case. Lamberth, a federal judge for two decades, has taken both Republican and Democratic administrations to task during his tenure.
To date, the government has turned over Secret Service records referring to seven White House visits by Abramoff — six of them in the early months of the Bush administration in 2001 and the seventh in early 2004 just before Abramoff came under criminal investigation.
The White House has released little information about the visits, but none of them appears to involve a small group meeting with President Bush.
Nearly two years ago, just after Abramoff had pleaded guilty in the influence peddling scandal, Bush told reporters, "I can't say I didn't ever meet" Abramoff, "but I meet a lot of people."
"I don't know him," Bush said at the presidential news conference in January 2006. "I've never sat down with him and had a discussion with the guy."
After Bush's comments, Abramoff wrote an e-mail to the national editor of Washingtonian magazine saying that Bush had seen him "in almost a dozen settings, and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids. Perhaps he has forgotten everything, who knows."
Time magazine reported that its reporters had been shown five photographs of Bush and Abramoff. Most of them, the magazine said, had "the formal look of photos taken at presidential receptions."
In an attempt to bolster its case, the Justice Department is citing a lawsuit on a secret operation of the Cold War, the attempted raising of a sunken Soviet submarine. In a 1976 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowed the CIA to refuse to confirm or deny its ties to Howard Hughes' submarine retrieval ship, the Glomar Explorer.
"A refusal to either confirm or deny the existence of responsive records is a well-recognized and accepted response in circumstances such as these," the Bush administration's court filing states.
The Justice Department probe of Abramoff and his team of lobbyists has led to convictions of a dozen people, including former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, former White House official David Safavian and former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles.
Abramoff is serving six years in prison on a criminal case out of Florida. He has not yet been sentenced on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the influence-peddling scandal in Washington.
Watching the Republican debates is proving a surreal experience. The feeling is like watching... well, a science experiment, I guess, would be the best way to put it. All of the Republicans involved seem to be devolving into crude caricatures of Republicanism, but different crude caricatures of Republicanism -- something a bit more surreal than mere pandering. It is as if modern Republicanism was pushed through an ideological prism, and each of its parts scattered onto a different podium at a different part of the stage.
Romney: The CEO Republican. The multimillionaire whose interest is an America secured for the financial goals of multimillionaires. The problems of the little people are nothing: give them a little verbal bread, by appealing to a few of their baser instincts (Guantanamo good! Terrorism bad! Torture good!), and the Republican party leadership can play the public like puppets on strings. Romney stands out for being the Republican whose social and foreign policy stances are most transparently a put-on, someone who seems happy to drift along saying pretty much whatever the staffers say he should say if it allows him to move on without incident.
Huckabee: The Religious Republican. The perfect embodiment of true Republican religion; sings to the majesty of a Jesus that has been painstakingly repainted in the Republicans' own image, scrubbed of inconvenient tendencies towards compassion. Huckabee does not know if Jesus would support the death penalty. He does not know if torture is anti-Christian enough to really make a big fuss over. He considers himself the most Christian candidate, but mere self-proclaimed knowledge of the Holy Will of God is not sufficient enough to go against the Republican edicts against the poor and sick that define his party. Republicanism is a stronger religion, on that stage, than Christianity will ever be, and Reagan a more heralded messiah: when it comes to Huckabee facing the phalanx of fervently "religious" Republican voters that will oppose him if he steps too carelessly on their own agendas, Jesus will have to make do as usual with a bit of vapid praise and little else.
Giuliani: The Crime Boss Republican. Giuliani's primary motivation in government has always been the consolidation of his own power, the use of that power to retaliate against his enemies, and, apparently, Herculean efforts to organize his city around best satisfying his own desires and needs and genitalia. And all of it sold to the public under constant assertions of danger, of terror, and imminent death if his edicts are questioned. He represents mafia don Republicanism, as perfected by Karl Rove, DeLay, Cheney and countless others, and is the most craven issuer of the bluntly stated threat: let me and my Republican associates and my Republican petty whims go unimpeded, or something will happen to you or your family.
Tancredo/Hunter: The Bigots. Nativism and racism writ large; the "Southern Strategy" recast to draw from and stoke fear, resentment and loathing not against black Americans, now protected too well for such rank hatreds to be openly expressed, but against brown Americans. Bigotry against minorities is still perfectly acceptable and, in fact, craved by the Republican base -- the targets, however, have had to shift as each previously assaulted group has won their own civil rights. So now the attack moves to gay Americans, yes, but most especially to Hispanics, thinly veiled under pretenses of rampant and dangerous "illegality." Gotta have someone to hate. Gotta have have some group, somewhere, that supposedly threatens the very social fabric of America by having the audacity to wish to be treated as human. What if (insert group here) moves next door, or marries your daughter, or gets on the same elevator as you? How many American laws must be changed or created or ignored, in order to prevent such a terror from happening?
Thompson: The Vacuum-Packed Professional Republican. Chosen by name alone, not skill, and specifically picked to be well known and inoffensive with no particular record, agenda, skills, or ideas that might get in the way. The goal of the handpicked vacuum packed Republican, whether it be Fred Thompson, Arnold Schwartzenegger, or anyone else, is for their name to quickly provide enough boost to make their actual statements and positions irrelevant. Unfortunately for his party backers, Thompson has proved to have the political vibrancy of a dead halibut, thus defeating himself handily in his only area of purported accomplishment.
Ron Paul: The To Hell With The Rest Of You Republican. The rejector of the base premises of government itself. Paul represents the large portion of the Republican party that condemns the very notion that government should have a role in bettering the health, education, or welfare of its citizens. Under the Republican faux-libertarianism that finds its current crown princes in figures like Grover Norquist and Ron Paul, government can indeed be ably used as an enforcing tool of bigotry, but not of tolerance; government can indeed be used as a valid tool of industry against citizenry, but not the reverse; government, most of all, is a failure by its mere existence -- unless it serves their own thinly drawn purposes, of course. It is the shallowest and most crass interpretation possible of societal good and, indeed, of civilization, which goes to explain why it is so popular among certain groups.
While not one of the current Republican candidates are eager to utter George Bush's name -- he is, after all, badly damaged goods, since he had the misfortune to put Republican ideas into practice and be branded with the now-obvious results -- there have been absolutely no attempts whatsoever to distance themselves from either those ideas or those results. On the contrary, it has just been broken up into discrete portions, every one of them seeking dominance over the others.
It is as if all the failures and corruptions of principle of George Bush has been cleaved into parts, each one of them reaching an even more extreme level in one or another of those seeking to succeed him. Would you like the religious panderer Bush, or the fiscally incompetent Bush? Would you prefer the Bush that uses the crudely drawn specter of terrorism as distraction from every issue and act, no matter how seemingly petty or unconnected? Would you like the Bush that turns all aspects of government into crap, or the Bush that uses his position as a tribal lord, meting out punishments to all those that oppose him and lucrative positions and benefits to all those that maintain their loyalty? You have a choice: each one is represented onstage.
And why should that be surprising? It is, after all, the fabric of Republicanism. These are the things that get applause, when spoken from their podiums: the crude, the insincere, the blasphemous, the hateful, even the condemnation of the tasks of government themselves. Large portions of America cheer for these things, and, surely, those portions of America need a political party too.
If anything, though, it's going to be fascinating to watch which portion of this spectrum proves the most powerful in the party. Will it be the racism? The oligarchical premises of rank and privilege? The claims of Christianity divorced of any actual requirement to behave in a Christian fashion? The damn everyone but me movement is alive and well, but which precise form will it take?
Which part of the schizophrenic Republican personality will prove most dominant, at the end of primary season? And what will it take to stitch the various Frankensteinian parts back together into something again vaguely presentable to the nation, come the general election?
UPDATE: My goodness, I forgot McCain, the Warmonger Republican. In my defense, it's only because everyone has forgotten McCain. He is still running, right, and not just as a foil to Ron Paul?
THE migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in South Florida have one of the nation’s most backbreaking jobs. For 10 to 12 hours a day, they pick tomatoes by hand, earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes. For their efforts, this holiday season many of them are about to get a 40 percent pay cut.
Florida’s tomato growers have long faced pressure to reduce operating costs; one way to do that is to keep migrant wages as low as possible. Although some of the pressure has come from increased competition with Mexican growers, most of it has been forcefully applied by the largest purchaser of Florida tomatoes: American fast food chains that want millions of pounds of cheap tomatoes as a garnish for their hamburgers, tacos and salads.
In 2005, Florida tomato pickers gained their first significant pay raise since the late 1970s when Taco Bell ended a consumer boycott by agreeing to pay an extra penny per pound for its tomatoes, with the extra cent going directly to the farm workers. Last April, McDonald’s agreed to a similar arrangement, increasing the wages of its tomato pickers to about 77 cents per bucket. But Burger King, whose headquarters are in Florida, has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny — and its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
This month the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, announced that it will not allow any of its members to collect the extra penny for farm workers. Reggie Brown, the executive vice president of the group, described the surcharge for poor migrants as “pretty much near un-American.”
Migrant farm laborers have long been among America’s most impoverished workers. Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse. During the past decade, the United States Justice Department has prosecuted half a dozen cases of slavery among farm workers in Florida. Migrants have been driven into debt, forced to work for nothing and kept in chained trailers at night. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers — a farm worker alliance based in Immokalee, Fla. — has done a heroic job improving the lives of migrants in the state, investigating slavery cases and negotiating the penny-per-pound surcharge with fast food chains.
Now the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages. The organization claims that such a surcharge would violate “federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.” It has not explained how that extra penny would break those laws; nor has it explained why other surcharges routinely imposed by the growers (for things like higher fuel costs) are perfectly legal.
The prominent role that Burger King has played in rescinding the pay raise offers a spectacle of yuletide greed worthy of Charles Dickens. Burger King has justified its behavior by claiming that it has no control over the labor practices of its suppliers. “Florida growers have a right to run their businesses how they see fit,” a Burger King spokesman told The St. Petersburg Times.
Yet the company has adopted a far more activist approach when the issue is the well-being of livestock. In March, Burger King announced strict new rules on how its meatpacking suppliers should treat chickens and hogs. As for human rights abuses, Burger King has suggested that if the poor farm workers of southern Florida need more money, they should apply for jobs at its restaurants.
Three private equity firms — Bain Capital, the Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners — control most of Burger King’s stock. Last year, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd C. Blankfein, earned the largest annual bonus in Wall Street history, and this year he stands to receive an even larger one. Goldman Sachs has served its investors well lately, avoiding the subprime mortgage meltdown and, according to Business Week, doubling the value of its Burger King investment within three years.
Telling Burger King to pay an extra penny for tomatoes and provide a decent wage to migrant workers would hardly bankrupt the company. Indeed, it would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year. At Goldman Sachs, that sort of money shouldn’t be too hard to find. In 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million — more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year. Now Mr. Blankfein should find a way to share some of his company’s good fortune with the workers at the bottom of the food chain.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A quarter of Blackwater security guards in Iraq use steroids and other "judgment-altering substances," according to a lawsuit filed by the families of several Iraqis killed or wounded in a Baghdad shooting in September.
Blackwater denies the charges.
The suit, filed Monday in Washington, accuses the company of fostering "a culture of lawlessness" among its guards and says the use of excessive force helps the company preserve a key selling point -- the fact that none of its protectees have been killed during the four-year-old war.
"I think there is a whole corporate culture there that essentially rewards the use of excessive force -- shooting first, asking questions later," said Susan Burke, the lead attorney in the case.
The lawsuit accuses Blackwater of war crimes, wrongful death, assault, negligent hiring and emotional distress. The plaintiffs include two wounded survivors of the September 16 shootings around Nusoor Square, in western Baghdad, and the families of five people killed in the incident. Iraqi authorities say the guards killed 17 people in an act of "premeditated murder."
Blackwater has denied any wrongdoing, arguing its contractors used necessary force to protect a State Department convoy that came under fire from insurgents.
The lawsuit accuses Blackwater of failing to control the use of steroids among its guards -- an allegation Burke said came from "people in that community," and one she said would be backed up as the case progresses.
"The reality is that Blackwater has indeed fired people for steroid use, so they're on clear notice that there's steroid use," Burke said. She said Blackwater has marketed the idea "that their people are kind of tougher and bigger than anybody else," and has turned a blind eye toward "serious, repeated situations of excessive use of force."
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell rejected the steroid allegations, saying all company workers face drug tests during their application process and on a quarterly basis while working for the firm.
"Steroids and performance enhancement drugs, both illegal and prescribed, are absolutely in violation of our policy," Tyrrell told CNN. "Blackwater has very strict policies concerning drug use, and if anyone were known to be using illegal drugs, they would be fired immediately."
The lawsuit states that the guards involved in the September 16 killings violated orders from their Baghdad supervisors by leaving a secure area where they had dropped off a State Department official under their protection.
The guards opened fire "without provocation," the suit states, and continued firing even after one of their comrades tried to stop them from shooting.
The lawsuit also accuses the North Carolina-based military contractor of hiring ex-Chilean commandos who were barred from security or military work in their home country after admitting to human rights violations, and of hiring mercenaries -- a term the company rejects -- from a variety of countries.
The U.S. government has paid the company nearly $1 billion for diplomatic security since the invasion of Iraq, a House committee reported in September.
The Nusoor Square killings spurred Iraqi threats to bar the company from operating in Iraq and a push to lift the legal immunity conferred on contractors by the U.S.-led occupation government in 2004.
The lawsuit does not request a specific amount in damages, but Burke said her clients want both compensation for their own losses and punitive damages against the firm "for having failed to take the reasonable and adequate corporate steps that they should have taken ages ago."
"Blackwater encourages and fosters a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company's financial interest at the expense of innocent human life," the lawsuit says.
CNN's Jamie McIntyre and Laurie Ure contributed to this report.
John Santelli MD MPH
, Columbia University
Editor's Note: This following letter was sent to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid urging Congressional leaders to reconsider continuing federal investments in abstinence-only funding. The letter was sent by John S Santelli MD, MPH at Columbia University and signed by nine other prominent researchers in the field of adolescent sexual and reproductive health last Wednesday, Nov 21. It was sent to RH Reality Check yesterday and we are thrilled to post it below.
Dear Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid,
As a group of leading scientists who have recently conducted research on adolescents, reproductive health, and abstinence-only education, we are writing to express our strong concern about increasing federal support for abstinence-only education (AOE) programs. This federal support includes monies going to states (Section 510 of the Social Security Act) and those going directly to community and faith-based organizations (the Community-Based Abstinence Education program). Recent reports in professional publications by the authors of this letter have highlighted multiple deficiencies in federal abstinence-only programs. As such, we are surprised and dismayed that the Congress is proposing to extend and even increase funding for these programs. In this letter we identify key problems with abstinence-only education. We also have attached recent scientific reports that are pertinent to the debate over these programs. We note that many of these studies have used nationally-representative data from surveys sponsored by the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal programs promoting AOE have prompted multiple scientific and ethical critiques. These critiques were summarized in a January 2006 paper by Santelli, Ott and others. By design, abstinence programs restrict information about condoms and contraception - information that may be critical to protecting the health of young people and to preventing unplanned pregnancy, HIV infection, and infection with other sexually transmitted organisms. They ignore the health needs of sexually active youth and youth who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning for counseling, health care services, and risk reduction education. Withholding lifesaving information from young people is contrary to the standards of medical ethics and to many international human rights conventions. International treaties and human rights statements support the rights of adolescents to seek and receive information vital to their health. Governments have an obligation to provide accurate information to adolescents and adolescents have a right to expect health education provided in public schools to be scientifically accurate and complete.
Rigorous evaluations of AOE programs find little evidence of efficacy for federally-sponsored abstinence education. Several weeks ago Dr. Douglas Kirby, working with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, released a comprehensive review of prevention programs for youth (Emerging Answers 2007). This review found that none of the well-designed evaluations of abstinence-only programs presented strong evidence of an impact on abstinence behaviors. (By contrast, Kirby finds clear evidence that many comprehensive sexuality education programs, which include information on both abstinence and contraception, do help young people delay initiation of intercourse.) The large-scale Mathematica evaluation of the Section 510 program, released in April 2007, found no measurable impact on increasing abstinence or delaying sexual initiation among participating youth or on other behaviors such as condom use. This well funded and very well conducted evaluation examined four exemplary local programs, tracking youth over four years. One of the few measurable impacts of the programs was a decrease in adolescent confidence regarding the ability of condoms to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Similar results on program efficacy were found by Underhill, who reviewed abstinence-only programs in a spring 2007 systematic review.
Virginity pledging, one aspect of abstinence programming, appears to have little long-term benefit in preventing outcomes such as sexually transmitted infections, although prevention of these infections is a stated goal of the programs. A spring 2005 longitudinal study by Bruckner and Bearman found that abstinence pledgers, when compared to non-pledgers, experienced similar rates of sexually transmitted infection. Pledgers did delay sexual intercourse for a limited period, but when they did start having sex, they were less likely to use condoms. They were also less likely to seek reproductive health care compared to non-pledgers.
Abstinence until marriage is another stated goal of the federal program; however, evidence from the past several decades indicates that establishing abstinence until marriage as normative behavior would be a highly challenging policy goal. Teitler has shown that over the past 40 years, the median age at first intercourse has dropped (and stabilized) to age 17 in most developed countries.
At the same time, the median age at marriage has risen dramatically. Today, sexual intercourse is almost universally initiated during adolescence worldwide. A January 2007 study by Finer found that almost all Americans initiate sexual intercourse before marriage. In fact by age 44, virtually everyone has experienced sexual intercourse but only 3% have remained abstinent until marriage. Moreover this is not a new trend; Finer's data suggest this pattern has been true for much of the second half of the 20th century.
Importantly, the emphasis on abstinence-only programs and policies appears to be undermining critical public health programs in the U.S. and abroad, including comprehensive sexuality education and HIV prevention programs. During the period of increased state and federal emphasis on abstinence, declines have occurred in the percentage of teachers in U.S. public schools who teach about birth control and the number of students who report receiving such education. In December 2006, Lindberg and colleagues found that the percentage of teenagers who had received formal instruction about condoms and contraception declined from 89% in 1995 to 70% in 2002.
We also note that a December 2004 Congressional report on federal abstinence programs from the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform - Minority Staff found that 11 of the 13 most frequently used curricula contained false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health - including inaccurate information about contraceptive effectiveness, purported health risks of abortion, and other scientific errors. Recent reviews of these abstinence curricula from Santelli and colleagues at Columbia University have found similar inaccuracies, particularly misinformation about the efficacy of condoms and contraception. This was the basis of an ACLU declaration on this topic from Santelli in the spring of this year.
Abstinence-only requirements also appear to be harming our foreign aid efforts. In April 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report titled "Spending Requirement Presents Challenges for Allocating Prevention Funding under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief" that concluded that the "...requirement that country teams spend at least 33 percent of prevention funding appropriated pursuant to the act on abstinence-until-marriage programs has presented challenges to country teams' ability to adhere to the PEPFAR sexual transmission strategy...[and] challenged their ability to integrate the components of the ABC model and respond to local needs, local epidemiology, and distinctive social and cultural patterns."
We would note that all of the mainstream organizations of health professionals that focus on the health of young people have strongly criticized federal support for current abstinence programs. These include the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine. We have also attached the weblinks to the policy statements from each of these groups.
The recent Congressional testimony of former Surgeon General Richard Carmona underscores these critiques from mainstream health organizations. Dr. Carmona's testimony confirms the political motivations behind abstinence funding and the failure to address issues of efficacy and scientific accuracy. He suggested that ideology and theology have taken priority over women's health in the current administration. Dr. Carmona reported that the Bush administration "did not want to hear the science but wanted to, if you will, ‘preach abstinence,' which I felt was scientifically incorrect."
Given these serious scientific and ethical shortcomings, we strongly urge the U.S. Congress to reconsider federal support for abstinence-only education programs and policies. We would be very willing to advise you on shaping alternatives to the current program.
John S Santelli, MD, MPH
Peter Bearman, PhD
Claire Brindis, DrPH
University of California, San Francisco
Hannah Bruckner, PhD
Lawrence B Finer, PhD
Laura Duberstein Lindberg, PhD
Mary Ott, MD
Julien Teitler, PhD
Deborah Tolman, EdD
San Francisco State University
Kristen Underhill, DPhil
(Organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.)
Cc Senate and House Leadership and Appropriations Committees
by Joe Hagan
If he weren’t famous, he’d be mistaken for a veteran of a long-ago war: khaki safari shirt on his back, scuffed combat boots on his feet, that wiry crest of a brow, rheumy eyes under heavy lids, lower lip jutting out like an ornery fish resisting a hook.
When Dan Rather sits on a bench in Central Park to tell how his 44-year career at CBS News ended in ignominy and humiliation, he is in fact still waging a war, a bitter and personal one. And the memories of the battles that undid him are still fresh on his mind. “Monday morning, about 8:49—and I think that is the time precisely,” he says. He’s recalling January 10, 2005, when he first received the 224-page report commissioned by CBS that excoriated his infamous 60 Minutes Wednesday segment on President Bush’s National Guard service. Of that report, Rather says, “When I read through it, all I could say to myself, on each page, is, ‘What bullshit. What pure, unadulterated bullshit this whole thing is. What a setup. What a fix.’ ” He nearly spits the word fix.
Three years later, Rather cannot forget. He’s suing CBS and its former parent company Viacom—along with Viacom’s chairman, Sumner Redstone; CBS chief Leslie Moonves; and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward—for $70 million. The core of Rather’s lawsuit is a mundane contract dispute over whether he received the airtime he was promised in his final year on CBS. But like Rather himself, it’s charged with hurricane-force drama, draped in a larger tale of conspiracy and corruption. He hopes that depositions and subpoenas can complete the unfinished business of “Rathergate,” proving not only that he was right all along, that his National Guard story was accurate, but also that CBS buried him so Sumner Redstone could shield Viacom’s corporate interests in Washington from White House blowback. “My opinion,” says Rather, “is that Redstone is the heavy in this.”
This is Dan Rather’s last big story, his crusade to save his reputation as one of the late-twentieth century’s great TV newsmen. “Look, I don’t want to be some Don Quixote out here tilting at windmills, without even a Sancho,” says Rather. “I think when people hear what I was told and what I was not told by CBS executives concerning the Guard story, that they’ll understand.”
But with much unproved, Rather’s claims have left him standing alone. CBS has already fired back, motioning to dismiss his case and calling his allegations “bizarre” and “far-fetched,” his motives purely ego-driven. In launching his attack, Rather risks what’s left of his credibility: If the case makes it to trial, it could uncap the biggest media scandal ever told—or reveal Rather to be the crumpled icon of a fading era, courting madness in the twilight of public life.
It was only three years ago that Rather reported the story that would cost him his career, but the world was a very different place back then. It’s easy to forget now, when prosecuting Bush in the press has become commonplace, that in the lead-up to the 2004 election, much of the mainstream media was in a defensive crouch. “This administration was hammering people for much less controversial stuff,” says a veteran TV news producer. “When they were at the height of their power, post-9/11, they would call about anything, yell about anything, pressure people about anything.” And it seemed to be working. Rather claims CBS dragged its feet on his scoop on Abu Ghraib prison abuse, which ran only after the network learned it was about to be beaten by The New Yorker. (CBS says it held the story because it wasn’t ready.)
With conservative groups attacking Senator John Kerry’s record as a Vietnam War veteran, Bush’s own service was vulnerable, and Rather and his producer Mary Mapes went after it. In the summer of 2004, Mapes obtained four memos purportedly written by Bush’s former commanding officer in the National Guard, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, expressing discomfort at having to “sugarcoat” Bush’s record. There had been questions about whether Bush had completed his required Guard duty as early as 2000, but no one had come up with definitive proof that he hadn’t. The Killian documents appeared to be the smoking gun. With USA Today on its heels, CBS felt it had to rush the story on the air—some say the heaviest pressure came directly from Rather. Rather says he repeatedly asked Mapes if the memos were authentic, telling everyone the story was “thermonuclear.” When Mapes said they were real, that was good enough for him. The afternoon before the broadcast, CBS News showed the documents to White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, who didn’t deny their veracity but instead argued that they actually supported elements of Bush’s own version of events.
CBS declined to comment for this story, beyond releasing a statement saying the company is “mystified and saddened by the baseless and self-serving allegations and distortions of fact raised in [Rather’s] lawsuit.” So that leaves us with Rather’s version of what happened next. “The fact is, they caved,” he says. “They crumbled.” When the documents were savaged by right-wing bloggers and press critics, CBS News found it couldn’t prove their authenticity and backed down. And so, at the time, did Rather. After twelve days of scrambling to defend his story, Rather went on the air and said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.”
Rather now claims the apology was “coerced” by CBS News president Andrew Heyward. Rather was still clinging to the story with both hands when Heyward asked Rather’s agent of 42 years, Richard Leibner, to mentally prepare Rather to let go. Later, the stunned anchor stood next to Heyward while his boss typed the script on a computer.
Rather went along with the company line—partly because he was shell-shocked, partly out of loyalty to the network where he had spent his entire career, and partly as an act of self-preservation. Rather believed that Heyward and Moonves would help him recover from the debacle and support his continuing efforts to prove the documents were real. “I love CBS News,” Rather says. “It was painful to me that we were going through this. And they’re saying, ‘Listen, we’re all in this together. You may not agree with everything we do, but [we’re] committed to your coming out of this as well as you can.’ ”
Two days after the apology, Rather’s faith in his employers was shaken. CBS announced it was commissioning an independent investigation into the flaws of his 60 Minutes Wednesday segment, to be co-chaired by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, a Bush family friend and onetime Nixon confidant. Rather felt CBS was handing him over to his enemies for execution. When Heyward informed him that Thornburgh would lead the investigation, Rather was riding in a car in Manhattan with a CBS security guard assigned to him after he’d been mobbed by paparazzi. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Rather told him, slamming his fist on the dashboard. “This is un-fucking-believable! You couldn’t have picked anybody who is worse.”
Rather says he told Heyward, “‘You can’t do this.’ And he very coldly said, ‘It’s done.’”
Already a chronic insomniac, Rather barely slept now, arriving at his office at 7 a.m. to make frantic calls to anyone and everyone, desperate to glue the story back together. After the 6:30 broadcast of the Evening News, he would stay on the set for hours going over the details. “He was crazed,” says a friend. “He looked exhausted.”
Rather and Mapes were told to cease their efforts to prove the Guard story, at which point Rather tried to hire his own private eye to continue digging. Heyward told him to stand down, that CBS would hire one instead. Rather says he was promised a copy of the P.I.’s report, although he never received one. (CBS claims its investigator, Erik Rigler, whom Rather now calls the “mystery man,” never found anything.)
At first, Rather refused to deal with the commission. “No good can come from this,” he remembers thinking. “It stenches of fix.” But again Heyward—along with Rather’s family and his agent—persuaded him to cooperate for the good of CBS. Rather and Heyward had known each other since the early eighties, when Rather plucked Heyward from the local New York affiliate to work at the network. Heyward promised they would get through the ordeal together. “He’d gone corporate long before this,” says Rather. “Nevertheless, I believed him.”
When he describes his eight-hour interrogation before the commission, Rather seems to relive the moment. He can visualize the seating chart of his inquisitors, pointing to exactly where Thornburgh sat. Former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi was the only journalist on the panel, outnumbered by lawyers, Rather says, with two from Thornburgh’s legal team doing the bulk of the questioning. Thornburgh sat silent and coiled, waiting to interject “like a cobra strikes.”
“He’d get up right in your face: ‘Mr. Rather, you mean to tell me that after all of this you’d do a story with Mary Mapes?’ ‘Yessir, that’s exactly what I said.’ And then he’d shake his head,” says Rather. “I thought he was a total ass. He tried cheap Perry Mason tactics.”
As the commission’s investigation dragged on through the fall, Rather began to piece together his conspiracy theory. “As soon as we began to see that the company was wobbling,” says Rather, “I said to myself, ‘I think Redstone said to Moonves, Make this disappear. This is killing us in Washington.’” Now, everywhere he looked, he saw signs of his company’s caving to pressure from the Bush administration. Moonves told investors at a Goldman Sachs conference that the Thornburgh-Boccardi report would be delayed until “after the election, so it won’t affect what is going on.” In a Time magazine interview before the election, Redstone said his reaction to Rather’s report was one of “severe distress” and announced his preference of Bush for president: “I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.” It was an unusual political declaration from a media CEO. At the time, the Republican-controlled FCC had levied heavy fines against Viacom for shock jock Howard Stern’s on-air infractions, just as Viacom was lobbying the FCC for more media deregulation. Rather now suspects that Viacom’s top lobbyist in Washington, Carol Melton, suggested Dick Thornburgh for the panel to appease Republicans. (Soon after, Melton hired an outside lobbying firm to strengthen Viacom’s relationship with the GOP.)
Rather believes Redstone wanted him out because he was costing the company too much political capital. As evidence, he refers me to a paragraph buried deep in Edward Klein’s recent book about Katie Couric. Klein reports that Redstone declared in a board meeting, “I want anyone associated with that guy to go,” referring to Rather, because he was jeopardizing the company’s lobbying efforts on a major corporate-tax bill passing through the Republican-controlled Congress. Klein, a controversial journalist whose reporting on Hillary Clinton was pretty much discredited in 2006, insists the anecdote came from somebody “inside the room.” But another person who was present says Redstone never said that, although there were extensive conversations about Rather at Viacom’s board meetings. Subsequently, Viacom did lose its bid for tax breaks that could have saved it hundreds of millions of dollars.
On Election Night, Rather anchored the network’s coverage, staying on-air until 6:30 a.m. Four hours later, Rather says, he got a call from his agent telling him Moonves wanted him out of the anchor chair right away. He and Moonves had been discussing his retirement, and Rather knew his boss was angling for him to leave in the spring or fall of 2005. But the timing of the decision was suspicious. “This has to do with their relationship with Washington,” he recalls thinking. “If the election had gone another way, it might not have happened at that time.”
Rather’s shock turned to quiet fury. He stalked the offices, barely acknowledging staffers in the hallways. People referred to this mode as “Defcon 4.” “He got progressively, visually angry,” says a former colleague. “You don’t want to be in his eyesight when he’s like that.” His only release was commiserating on the phone late at night with Mary Mapes; he would announce himself as “Dan Rather, plus three”—meaning he’d had three glasses of bourbon.
A few weeks after the election, Rather and his agent met with Moonves to ask that Rather be allowed to stay on at the anchor desk until his 24th anniversary, three months away. Moonves reluctantly agreed, says Rather, and assured him CBS would stick by him. Afterward, Rather asked his agent to leave the room so he could have a private conversation with Moonves. Rather tried to appeal to his sense of justice. “I’m not sure there’s yet an understanding of what’s happening here,” he recalls telling Moonves. “We’ve done a true story, and they’re not denying it because they can’t deny it. And it’s very typical in American politics, whether Republicans or Democrats, what they look for is any place where they think you might be vulnerable and they try to make the conversation about that rather than the truth of the story. So I want to make sure, Mr. Moonves, that you understand.”
Rather describes the meeting as intense. “He listened very carefully,” he recalls. “‘I understand what you’re saying. We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through this together.’”
When his retirement from the anchor chair was announced, Rather went to the press with honeyed words for Moonves. “He actually watches news,” he told me in an interview at the time. “And he’s so sensitive to the CBS News traditions and history.”
When I read that quote back to Rather now, he darkens. “This is the way my mind works, small as it is,” he says. “I settle on something and say, ‘That’s where I stand.’”
Now, of course, he’s settled on something different. “Where I fault myself—and I fault myself on a lot of things—is that for the longest time I just refused to believe what my eyes saw and my ears were hearing.”
When the Thornburgh-Boccardi report landed in January 2005, Rather was spared: The panel concluded that he was not responsible for the failures of the Bush Guard segment (he was off covering a hurricane just before it aired) and that he wasn’t politically motivated; it even acknowledged that Rather “did not fully agree with this decision” to apologize on the air “and still believes that the content of the documents is accurate.” It wasn’t Rather’s proudest moment. All he had done was manage to avoid being the fall guy.
That honor would go to Mary Mapes, of course. Despite the fact that the panel could not determine whether the documents were authentic, Mapes was fired and three others—CBS News senior vice-president Betsy West, 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, and Mary Murphy, Howard’s senior producer—were dismissed. Rather blamed Heyward for not saving their colleagues. “I thought we were going to stick together through all this,” he told Heyward. According to Rather, Heyward said, “Dan, we’re so far beyond that it’s not even worth discussing.”
The plan seemed obvious to everyone except Rather: Mapes would be blamed, Rather would spend his remaining days doddering around the hallways at CBS (though certainly not producing news stories), and CBS would finally put this mess behind it.
At the time, Rather seemed determined to move on. He refused to cut off his relationship with Mapes, as CBS had requested (“I thought then and I think now that Mary shouldn’t have been fired,” he says), but he agreed to stop discussing the Guard story in public. He didn’t even seem interested in the news, which broke that spring, that a research assistant for Mapes had secretly recorded phone calls with CBS’ private eye, who on tape said he believed the Bush Guard story was “likely true” and speculated that CBS only hired him to prevent Mapes from suing. The day before his last Evening News broadcast, I shared that information with Rather, but the outgoing anchor was reluctant to fan the flames. Now those tapes are part of Rather’s lawsuit, but at the time he said it looked to him like “dots with no lines”—evidence that didn’t prove anything.
But the anger was seething just below the surface. The next night, Rather’s last as anchor of the CBS Evening News, he wore a T-shirt under his suit and tie that read F.E.A.—“Fuck ’em all.”
Rather still had a contract with CBS through November 2006, and as soon as he left the anchor chair, he began looking for stories to do at 60 Minutes. The trouble was that 60 Minutes didn’t want him. At a staff meeting around the time Rather was making the switch, the other correspondents told executive producer Jeff Fager that they didn’t think he was good for the program, that he had damaged the franchise. Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt all slagged Rather in the press. “These guys came up behind me to deliver one big blow to the head while I was down,” he says.
The atmosphere at 60 Minutes was poisonous for Rather. Friends say he was deeply depressed. He was often heard to say, “I used to be Dan Rather.”
His main complaint was that he wasn’t getting any airtime. He recalls the big blackboard that listed the correspondents and their assignments: “Over in one little corner, it was in chalk—just about six inches in length and maybe four and a half inches in width—was ‘DR.’ And there was nothing under it.” And when the time came to shoot the group portrait of the primary 60 Minutes correspondents for the fall, Rather says he was left out. “Someone on the outside would say, ‘This is piddling stuff,’ but when you work there, it’s not piddling at all.”
Rather managed to get only three segments on 60 Minutes in 2005, and two of them ran on Christmas and New Year’s—clear attempts, Rather claims, to make him invisible. Lawyers for CBS argue that they were not contractually obligated to put Rather on the air, only to pay him.
But Fager says Rather was actually given an enormous budget and three producers and offered ten segments for the next season. He says Rather simply didn’t produce high-quality material, though he did produce one of the most expensive segments, flying his crew to North Korea. “It’s a meritocracy,” says Fager. “We don’t air stories because you did them,” referring to Rather.
Rather felt betrayed by Fager, who was a longtime friend and a former executive producer on the Evening News. Fager wore a Rolex Rather gave him featuring the anchorman’s signature hurricane logo on the back of the dial. “I took Jeff out of obscurity,” Rather says. (Fager denies that Rather was responsible for his rise in the company: “I did as much for him as he did for me.”)
The next summer, Rather was told his career at CBS News was effectively over. He was offered an office and a secretary but no airtime. Though he was still owed one documentary on his contract, CBS turned it into a one-hour program called Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers.
Two years into Bush’s second term, the discredited National Guard documents were little more than a footnote in the story of the 2004 election—never proved real, never proved fake. But getting squeezed out at CBS had made Rather realize that they were going to follow him to his obituary. The only way out of the predicament, the only way to redeem his reputation, was to finish the story he and Mapes had started. And so, within a month of leaving CBS, Rather set out on a quest to find out what really happened, hiring three investigators to help him prove, once and for all, that the documents were authentic.
Like Kennedy trying to solve his own assassination, Rather explored every possible conspiracy theory, from Karl Rove’s planting passable fakes to damage him to a National Guard employee’s typing up copies before the originals were destroyed. “I’ve been down every one of those rabbit holes and 50 more,” says Rather, “including people saying, ‘You come up with $200,000 in small bills…’ About that I say, ‘Listen, I’m not going to pay for anything.’”
The case against the documents had boiled down to two critical weaknesses: The first was their modern font spacing, which several experts claimed could not have been produced on an early-seventies typewriter. Then there was the source, Bill Burkett, a disgruntled former National Guard employee who, say the detractors, hated Bush and misled CBS about their provenance. Rather had always believed that the arguments regarding typeface were merely a right-wing distraction, and that pitting experts against experts was a no-win proposition. What he needed to do was to follow Burkett’s paper trail—if he could prove where the documents came from, he could prove their authenticity.
The reporting was difficult. Sources changed their stories from day to day. Tips led from far West Texas to the Louisiana border, from retired secretaries to a drunk in a trailer park. Several witnesses, including current and former Guard employees, refused to talk on the record, saying they didn’t want to be put through the ringer as Burkett had been. “We very quickly got into the miasma of the thing,” says Rather. “I wish we could have dealt all the time with priests and rabbis and angels, but that’s not the way it works.”
Here is what Rather, after his investigation, believes happened with Bush’s National Guard records: In 1998, as Newsweek first reported, Harriet Miers (then Bush’s lawyer, later his Supreme Court nominee) and her firm were paid $19,000 to examine Bush’s Guard record for “vulnerabilities” in the run-up to his bid for the presidency. Rather believes Burkett’s allegation that the documents were “scrubbed” rather than examined. “There have been documents that have been shredded,” Rather asserts. “That’s a fact.” (Former White House spokesman Dan Bartlett admits that he was involved in examining the records, but calls the scrubbing allegation “an outrageous claim … the type of conspiracy theory that gives politics a bad name.”)
According to this version of events, unknown National Guard employees purloined some of the damning documents before they could be destroyed. Then, somehow, they came into the hands of former Guardsman Burkett. Burkett’s story about how he got the documents is bizarre: He claims they were given to him by a mysterious (and some say fictitious) woman named Lucy Ramirez, who arranged to have them hand-delivered to him at a Houston cattle show. Rather believes this handoff did in fact happen but that it had been concocted to conceal the fact that Burkett and his buddies had stolen the documents themselves.
“This is how it appears to have happened, or a way it could have happened,” says Rather. “That’s a working and, I think, reasonable hypothesis.”
Still, Rather is ultimately relying on the same source who got him into trouble in the first place. Why does he believe his documents are real now? There are two reasons: “First of all,” he says, “the story is true. Here is the proof that the story is true: Nobody has ever denied what was reported in the story. President Bush has not denied it, nobody at the White House has denied it, and nobody connected with the Bush administration has denied it.” (Actually, Bartlett does deny what CBS reported: “We believe the story is inaccurate, both the general thrust of it and the questionable sources they used,” he says. “I’m not a forensic specialist, but many people who are concluded the documents were fraudulent.”)
The second reason Rather believes the documents came from Bush’s file is a piece of information that he is privy to, but the rest of us are not—at least not yet. Rather says his lawyer has interviewed a credible eyewitness to the alleged shredding (and stealing) of the Bush documents who has agreed to tell the story under oath. But the witness refuses to come forward until Rather’s case goes to trial.
That leaves Rather twisting in the wind for now, a bit desperate for more information that will help him connect the dots. “If anybody knows anything,” he says, “now’s the time for them to come forward. If Burkett’s got something, now’s the time.” He repeats the phrase, looking for the right emphasis. “Now is the time. Now is the time.”
Rather won’t discuss when precisely he began thinking about filing suit. But one likely catalyst was Mary Mapes. In the fall of 2006, Mapes published a book, Truth and Duty, that defended the Bush Guard story and suggested a Viacom–White House conspiracy. What was in the book wasn’t surprising to Rather. What was surprising was that after its publication, Mapes hired a high-powered Houston lawyer named Mark Lanier to draw up a lawsuit against CBS, and CBS responded with a settlement before she had even filed it. What was in the suit that Mapes hadn’t included in her book? What would make CBS so eager to settle? The settlement required that Mapes sign a confidentiality agreement, and she couldn’t talk about it, even to Rather. (Mapes and CBS refused to comment on her suit.) Her settlement made Rather feel like he was the last of the Guard-story veterans left standing. The three other CBS staffers dismissed in 2005 had already settled as well—Josh Howard for $3 million. “Every other person has taken the money for silence,” says Rather. He thought of himself as the only one who could still uncover the truth.
Rather consulted several lawyers about the prospect of suing; they warned him that it was not only risky to face off against a $26 billion corporation like Viacom; it probably wasn’t worth the public scrutiny. “The likelihood is this will be long and it will be really tough—tougher than you imagine,” he recalls of the advice. “They’ll throw everything in the world at you, and don’t forget they have very deep pockets. They probably know your weakness, which is your family. And they have ways of putting pressure on pretty heavily with that.”
By the spring of this year, preparations for the suit were under way, with Martin Gold, the attorney who negotiated Rather’s acrimonious exit from CBS, interviewing potential witnesses in Texas. Still, Rather hadn’t quite decided to pull the trigger. He would spend summer evenings strolling alone along the tree-lined paths in Central Park, mulling it over in his head. He consulted a tight circle of people, and everyone had a different take on the situation. His wife of 50 years, Jean, told a friend she wished Dan wouldn’t fight this battle; she wanted to begin their life of retirement in Texas. Their two grown children, daughter Robin in Texas and son Danjack, an attorney in Robert Morgenthau’s office, urged him on. His agent didn’t support the lawsuit, not least because it would complicate his business with CBS.
Rather was anguished. “For two years he’s agonized about his reputation and finally said the hell with it,” says his close friend David Buksbaum, a former CBS News producer who accompanied Rather on several of his Central Park walks. “He couldn’t believe the company he bled for for 40 years would do it to him. It’s not about money, it’s not even about ego. It’s about vindication.”
Ultimately, says Rather, “I could not find a sufficient answer to the question of, Why not make a stand? If not now, when? If not you, who?”
Rather’s lawsuit has made him radioactive, even among his allies—many of whom would not speak about him on the record. It has also opened him up to criticism that he held on too long—both to his job and to the story—and, as CBS has stated in its legal rebuttal, that suing is his desperate attempt to return to public significance. Several of his former associates from CBS believe Rather should have bowed out gracefully like NBC’s Tom Brokaw. “He should have gotten out of this place a long time ago,” says a 60 Minutes producer. “He seemed to have no ability to make that choice and cross the line. He just moved the line.”
Rather insists he’s not just clinging to his public profile. “I can say truthfully I’ve never thought of it that way,” he says. “Being on television every day can be egocentric and it can develop an almost egomaniacal quality to it. That’s undeniable. And frankly, if you only do the anchoring work, you’re much more susceptible to that.”
People invariably laugh when you ask them to analyze Rather. Even Rather gives a smile and admits that figuring him out “may be full-time work.” Still, everyone has an opinion. Some of his friends think he’s brave to take on CBS; others see it as a little tragic. “It’s kind of sad that he feels like he has to do this,” says one admirer. “It’s going to zap a lot of his energy.” Morley Safer thinks Rather is suing because he “enjoys being a martyr.” For his detractors, there is also the whiff of insanity that clings to such a quixotic cause. In conversation, Rather doesn’t seem particularly crazy. But the “Crazy Dan” theme—“Gunga Dan,” “Courage,” “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”—still trails him.
“I’ve been a reporter for 58 years,” says Rather, not terribly happy that I’ve brought it up. “That old saying, as you go through life your friends fall away and your enemies accumulate—when you insist on being independent, sometimes with a capital I, people who are highly partisan politically, on all sides of things, when you don’t report things the way they want you to report it, they call you eccentric or wacky or biased or what have you.
“I’m not proud of this, but I fight back,” says Rather. “That’s just in my id.”
In the weeks I spent talking to him, Rather was still hustling like he’d be on the news each night at 6:30 in front of 7 million viewers. His schedule is packed with reporting trips for his current employer, financier Mark Cuban’s tiny cable channel HDNet, taking him to the Arctic Circle one week, California the next. Despite how few viewers can see his program, Dan Rather Reports—only 7 million people subscribe to the entire network—he still carries himself with the hallowed dignity of a Founding Father. His sonorous voice and Yoda-like phrasing (“Widely believed this may not be, but true it is,” he says at one point) now have a spectral force, like the ghost of televised evenings past. At 76, he’s modern enough to use a BlackBerry, but he types the word eye for the first-person pronoun. It’s a strange gesture that makes it difficult not to think of the CBS eye logo, forever embedded in Rather’s identity.
A judge will make a determination about whether to send Rather’s case against his former employer to trial early next year. CBS argues that Rather’s suit was filed after the statute of limitations and is baseless in any case. But Martin Garbus, the lawyer who represented Don Imus in his $30 million suit against CBS (which Rather says was not an inspiration for his suit), believes Rather has a strong-enough case that it will likely get tried. “It’s a good argument,” he says. “This is a bad time to be a corporate defendant and it’s a bad time to be CBS.”
Should Rather win, he says he’ll donate much of the money to the cause of investigative reporting and protecting newsrooms against corporate interference. He’s already written fourteen chapters of a book about the principles at stake, which he hopes to publish in the spring. On the park bench, Rather pulls a notebook from his pocket. “I still carry a reporter’s notebook,” he says. “Old habits die hard.”
He flips through the pages, each filled with longhand script in blue ink. At the top of one page is scrawled: “Why did you do it?” He begins to read. “The court action has at its core the protection of the rights of journalists, not to make them a journalistic private class, but to safeguard the liberties of us all by preserving one of the indispensable elements of responsible government, which is the right to report freely on the conduct of those in authority.”
He pauses and flips the page to a note to self, to “DR”: “I staked on this professionally my all. To some it may be folly, but I believe in it and I believe in its importance.”
He looks up from his pad. He’s inspired now. “Since I believe in it, why can’t I suck it up and speak up for it?” he asks, almost talking to himself. “Look, it may all go to hell in a hack. There are plenty of opportunities for that to happen. I was concerned about having … decider’s remorse. It’s not as if you can make this decision and go back on it.”
But in some ways, the decision was a foregone conclusion. “I’m a story breaker, I’m a storyteller,” he says. He finds several ways to phrase it, each more emphatic than the last. “I was a reporter, not just one who played one on television.”
As the sun lowers in the trees, Rather seems lighter, unburdened. “If I’m about anything at all—and I try to think I am—then it’s getting to the bottom of a story,” says Rather, “and this is, however anybody thinks about it”—he leans forward now, reporter to reporter, conspiratorial, a hint of danger in his eyes—“this is a good story.”
The Second Civil War
How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America
By Ronald Brownstein
The Penguin Press
New York, 2007
Just as Joe Cannon would feel comfortable at the side of Tom DeLay or Karl Rove, William Randolph Hearst would understand Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, or the Daily Kos. This new media, like paper in fire, fuels the flames of hyperpartisanship.
Nearly everything is wrong with this book, and every one of us should read it.
Never thought I’d write a sentence like that, but it’s true: The Second Civil War is probably the best example to date of the thinking that we’re up against as we try and change the way politics is practiced in this country. The mindset of Ronald Brownstein is Exhibit A for every entrenched establishment prejudice held against the more inclusive participatory movement that we’re building as revitalized progressives. As such, it should be studied closely--as exasperating as it is--as an encyclopedia of every objection that will be raised as we continue, every argument we can and will face, and every interest that is threatened by a movement that insists on openness, citizen input, interaction with policymakers and government accountability.
From the first few pages in the introduction, in which the counterweight to an indicted Tom DeLay’s arm-twisting thuggish leadership style as one of the most powerful House Majority Leaders in American history is balanced against ... wait for it ... Daily Kos users attending the first Yearly Kos convention, the moral bankruptcy of searching for an equivalency is on constant display. New York Times reviewer Alan Brinkley already took Brownstein to task over the DeLay-Daily Kos "stretch", so I will pass up the chance to pile on here, beyond one observation. A professional journalist who either honestly sees the two examples as appropriate weights, or feels the need to provide egregiously unbalanced "balance" and obliges, should be considered irrelevant to the continuing national conversation. This tired, endless quest to create false equivalencies--by a press the Constitution gives special mention because of its sacred duty to inform--is far more damaging to our national discourse than what ordinary citizens are saying on a blog. Whether it’s fear or blindness passing as objectivity no longer matters; to borrow from Jon Stewart, this kind of reporting is bad for America.
Let me count the ways.
1. Mistaking our volume for our message.
Yes, we’re loud. And there are a lot of us. And on occasion we’ve used language designed to make the comfortable uncomfortable. But ... this is not extremism. On nearly every topic we feel passionate about, we reflect the majority of public opinion. Being loud about something most Americans agree with is not "hyperpartisan." Being passionate about getting our troops out of a misbegotten war is not "extreme." (In fact, the 24 percent of Bush supporters who believe he’s doing a dandy job is a far more accurate definition of "extreme.")
Neither are our tactics "extreme." Letters to the editor, contacting our Congressional representatives, signing petitions, phone banking during elections, canvassing, manning information booths, holding up signs as protests, contacting media outlets to demand corrections, registering voters, discussing politics amongst ourselves. Yikes! Truly diabolical undertakings there. I’m sorry, but this is not the stuff of which extreme radicalism is made. I suggest Mr. Brownstein check back with us when Molotov cocktails are being thrown or the White House stormed. Talking to your neighbors armed with facts gleaned from the Daily Kos community about the illegality of torture does not an October Revolution (nor a Jack Abramoff swindle) make, and to frame it otherwise is just plain silly.
Similarly, anything less extreme than holding a convention in Las Vegas about how to better participate in the machinery of democracy cannot be imagined.
2. Oversimplification and dumbing down of progressive positions.
In a lengthy list, Brownstein lays out some of the issues and then delineates the "hyperpartisan" black/white stands that are so dividing America. Some of these include:
Social Security and Medicare: Reduce benefits versus increase taxes.
Immigration/border: Significantly toughen enforcement versus creating legal framework for millions already here.
Oil dependence: Increased domestic production versus reducing consumption.
Budget deficit: Spending cuts versus tax increases.
Let’s dispose of these quickly, one by one. On Social Security, progressives have discussed more than just tax increases (retirement age adjustments, raising income caps). On immigration issues, Democrats favor enforcing existing law, most notably as they apply to big business violators. On oil dependence, progressives advise both reducing consumption and finding alternative energy sources to meet increasing demand. On the budget deficit ... well, it wasn’t a Democrat who said "deficits don’t matter"; most progressives advocate a restoration of the tax code before Bush gifted the rich with breaks while gouging the middle class.
And so on. Reductionist, illusory and/or arguments make for easy-to-sketch dichotomies, but they have little bearing on how real political discussions are being carried on in the progressive movement.
Question: Which is more damaging to democracy--citizens who discuss nuances of policy at an obscure internet outpost? Or media experts with readership in the millions who reduce complex positions of both parties to billboard slogans?
3. Consistently drawing definitive conclusions from facts that are open to different interpretation.
Some profoundly muddled thinking is on display throughout. Consider the following three statements:
A. "The consequences of hyperpartisanship are not all negative .... With the choices so vividly clarified, more Americans are participating in the political system."
B. "What’s unusual now is that the political system is more polarized than the country."
C. "Less tangibly but as importantly, extreme partisanship has produced a toxic environment that empowers the most adversarial and shrill (Yes, he did use "shrill." Really. SusanG) voices in each party and disenfranchises the millions of Americans more attracted to pragmatic compromise than to ideological crusades."
First off, assertions (A) and (B) conflict directly and collapse into a mental mush pie. If more people (i.e., "the country,") are participating in the "political system," how can the "political system" be more polarized than the country? Then Statement C bemoans the fact that the "shrill" are disenfranchising millions of pragmatic Americans. Well, which is it? Are more people enfranchised participants or not? These logic violations crop up repeatedly in the book--the one above was grabbed simply because it typifies the mind-twisting going on to shore up the main premise of the book. But one can hardly turn five pages in a row without coming across one statement that completely casts into doubt one just as assertively made on the previous page. (I will revisit these three statements in the section below called "The Argument Sandwich," so be ready to scroll back here in a bit.)
Unfortunately, the pottage of contradiction conceals some points worthy of real discussion. Alas, Brownstein respectfully declines to pursue them. For example, he doesn’t bother to speculate about a much more interesting possibility posed by the "loud" and "many" conundrum he noted: Could it possibly be that as politics becomes more truly participatory, more inclusive, that it will become more raucous as more voices and viewpoints discover a microphone? I think this question is actually much more interesting than any posed in the book. It’s also entirely possible that the hyperpartisanship has been with us all along, but without the technology to hear what ordinary people actually thought about lawmakers, policies and credentialed political correspondents, it seemed a much more sedate and decorous affair, with all the grumblings at the barbershop confined to the barbershop.
Question: Brownstein chooses to highlight a Yearly Kos attendee who arrives via a van sporting a bumper sticker declaring, "When fascism comes to America,it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." In failing to identify the originator of the quotation, is Brownstein (a) ignorant of the authorship; or (b) writing to underscore the stereotype of aging, raging hippie loser bloggers? (Bonus question: Is America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature bad for America?)
4. Ah, the good old days ...
Running throughout the book is a nostalgic yearning for the smoke-filled back rooms of yore, lazy walks by senators in the afternoons, back-scratching understandings of how real things get done in this country discretely beyond the view of the enormously naive voters, who just don’t get how all that horse-trading is in their best interest. Yes, he admits (see the Argument Sandwich below) while it is regrettable that African-Americans (for example) were locked out of the system for years, and it is (of course) a a good and great thing that they now are also able to vote into office their very own back-room Machiavellis to represent them ... still, those good old days were just so much more dignified, so much more appealing.
Please note that I’m not saying Brownstein is a bigot in any sense of the word. There’s not a trace of that in the work. However, his bittersweet evocations of leisurely gentility in an age of true statesmanship before the Dixiecrats bolted over desegregation--incidentally, some of the best written passages in the book--read like they were supplied for characters of Gone with the Wind now reduced to splitting logs and wearing curtains under vulgar carpetbagger rule.
We newbies are just so inelegant, it pains him.
5. The redefinition of the "center."
This is a dead horse beaten into dog food at this point on the blogs: the "center" has been pushed so far right that it appears Brownstein can, with a straight face, write:
Yet Bush, as a presidential candidate, also reaffirmed many of the centrist themes he had stressed as governor. He proposed greater partnerships between government and religious charities to confront entrenched social problems like teen pregnancy.
Yes, you read that right: taxpayer dollars being poured into the coffers of religious groups promoting anti-abortion and abstinence-only policies to teens is now considered "centrist." Enough said.
6. The Argument Sandwich Effect ... or To Be Fair ...
About now, if I were in the rolodex of the chattering classes, I suspect I would be getting a phone call from Brownstein saying, Hey, I said the Republicans started it. I said their tactics were more drastic. And you know what? He’d be right. He said exactly that. But the charge has been diluted with so many qualifications, and so many "balanced" examples from Democrats in order to not offend The Hammer and his hangers-on, that this layered effect cancels out any reasonable way to evaluate the stark undemocratic (with a small "d") tactics the modern GOP has foisted on America.
The right-wing movement has brutalized democracy and its institutions, turned them inside-out, spat upon them, and then ground the rest of us under its boot heel with a savage glee. To disguise this fact like one limp piece of lettuce in a triple-decker sandwich is shameful and not worthy of passing as "journalism."
Usually, this sandwiching is accomplished with the following formula:
- Both political parties are nasty and brutish.
- The Republicans? Slightly more so (examples).
- But Democrats do it too! (Often lame and reaching examples provided).
- Both political parties are nasty and brutish.
In one case, he refers to the infamous night of the Republicans holding the vote open on the Medicare bill for nearly three hours in order to arm-twist votes (earlier in the book, he’d dug up an instance a decade-and-a-half earlier when Democrats had held a vote open for 15 minutes. You know, it’s just the same! Even though ... um ... it’s not.). He follows his reference to the GOP episode with the sentence, "Though these tactics recalled the Democratic maneuvers against Republicans after the mid-1980s, they often exceeded them." There you have it: a sandwich stacked in one sentence. And no mention at any point in the book that the Medicare legislation in question turned out to be based on outright falsified numbers provided knowingly by the White House.
For variety, Brownstein will throw an extra slice of provolone on the Argument Sandwich, always to the detriment of Democrats. In one case, he leads with the usual "Both parties do it!," proceeds to the "Republicans are kinda meaner," and then tosses in the extra a la carte ("Democrats don’t want to play nice anyway"), as he muses:
Would Bush’s presidency have unfolded differently if he spent more time openly engaging with members of Congress, especially the Democrats who became such bitter adversaries? It is possible that even if Bush reached out more to Democrats they might not have reached back.... Congressional Democrats might have been too constrained by the politics of their own coalition to meet Bush halfway on most issues. But he made it easy for them by so rarely offering to move anywhere near that far in their direction.
Cripes. What can you say to that? How can, say, Sen. Harry Reid respond? "I would too have been nice in your little Lollipop Land fantasy! Really, I would have!"
The final problem with the Argument Sandwich is that it’s responsible for nearly all the illogic in the book, exemplified up above in #3, where he’s clearly trying to placate every side by kicking up dust in one direction while a cyclone’s hitting from the other. Hey, everyone must look like equally bad players, so what if it doesn’t make sense?
Question: If I make sure I bury in the middle of a long diatribe the fact that I think Mr. Brownstein’s motives were probably pure and serious in undertaking writing this book, does that mean I’ve done enough CYA to be considered a seasoned, objective political analyst? I guess we’ll find out.
7. The Credibility Problem: He Got Us Wrong.
So why should we believe him when he describes the dynamics of previous administrations or takes us through what appears to be well-researched historical analysis of cooperative and non-cooperative congressional coalitions in the 20th century (the bulk of the book, it turns out)? Sure, the conclusions sound plausible, but after getting me and tens of thousands of my fellow Daily Kos users wrong, I have no evidence he knows how to get anything else right.
This now extends beyond this book. Never will I read a word of his and not wonder what puffy layers of so-called objectivity I’m fighting through to find my way to truth.
8. Ideologues v. Pragmatists or Bai v. Brownstein
Just for kicks, let’s revisit Matt Bai’s view of us in The Argument:
One of the hallmarks of the netroots culture was a complete disconnect from history--meaning, basically, anything that had happened before 1998.... It wasn’t just that the bloggers didn’t know much about the political world before impeachment; it was that they didn’t want to know, either.... As far as Markos and Jerome [Armstrong] were concerned, tactics were all that mattered.... Jerome had no ideology. He didn’t care about the governing part--that was someone else’s problem.
And here’s Brownstein:
The political system now rewards ideology over pragmatism. It is designed to sharpen disagreements rather than construct consensus. It is built on exposing and influencing the differences that separate Americans rather than the shared priorities and values that unite them. It produces too much animosity and too few solutions.
See? It’s simple: According to expert observers, we’re either wed to ruthless tactics and ignorant of history and ideology, or we’re in thrall to ideology and divorced from tactical, pragmatic solutions.
9. Missing the Real Story-Negotiating with Terrorists
Brownstein’s insistence on spreading blame equally between the two parties and its partisans disguises the much more crucial question America faces today: despite the care taken by this country’s founders, it appears increasingly more likely that the democratic system can be hijacked and distorted by one powerful bloc. The framework of the Constitution counted on each branch jealously guarding its prerogatives against encroachment from the others, and the breakdown the system is facing today is a result of a decades-long willingness of Congress to cede its legislative obligations to the executive branch. Signing statements, executive orders, war authorizations, caving on executive resistance to oversight ... these are truly troubling developments and one would think a serious historical/political observer would at least raise questions about it, if only to put such concerns to rest.
How can our system safeguard itself in the future against the intimidating, power-bludgeoning tactics used by the Republican majority? Brownstein pens a chapter at the end of the book that proposes what amounts to lukewarm fiddling focused on bureaucratic rule changes in Congress--and that seems to assume that there are only loopholes to be fixed and no structural damage done to the framework itself. More and more, the world seems of late to be less divided between left and right, or urban and rural, but between those who view the recent reign of the "permanent Republican majority" as destructive to the very infrastructure of democracy... and those who shrug it off as a mild (and uncivil) aberration in an otherwise healthy system.
You’d think bells would have gone off in pundit land with the introduction of the term, "permanent Republican majority," itself. Why were no expert political commentators willing to examine this declared notion beyond noting the hubris? Amateur that I am, it sure raised my hackles. And to be clear--despite my shrill hyperpartisanship, I would shudder to hear this out of the mouths of progressive strategists as well. This country is not well-served by a "permanent" rule of any sort. All politicians--even those with whom I agree--should be perpetually haunted by the risk of losing power if they stray too far from the Constitution or its principles.
Yet when permanent ideological rule was proposed, backed up by ruthless terrorizing of more moderate Republicans and all Democrats, few voices were raised at the time. Even now, as is evidenced by this book, professional commentators are more concerned about the tone of voice used when raising doubt than addressing the issues themselves.
10. Who’s to Blame: The Fetishistically Neutral Observer
Those with platforms, those with access to the players, have failed us. The morally neutral observers in this struggle, including Brownstein, may end up bearing more responsibility for democracy’s demise than the actors themselves. Of course people in power overreach; the system was designed to counterbalance that. But when professional media representatives spend 484 pages trying to shame us for caring passionately about governance with a patronizing scold of "people who are rather unpleasant have taken to the microphones of late," it’s damaging to democracy.
No, sorry, despite the condescension to which we’re constantly subjected, we won’t shut up. We won’t back off. We won’t tone it down. We’ll continue to fight, and gather on blogs, and hold conventions, and demand accountability from those we elect. We trust that when history books look back on this "hyperpartisan" period, the dispassionate self-appointed witnesses who had the access, the platform and the "credentials" to make a difference--and chose not to use them--will not be judged kindly.
Attempting to shame an invigorated and engaged populace into silence--by comparing it with one of the most corrupt and powerful political machines in our nation’s history--is not quite the role the Founders had in mind for the American press. I suspect in the dark of night, Brownstein probably knows that. But what he and the other Mrs. Grundys of the beltway ultimately fail to explain is how their pleas for compromise and propriety would have stemmed the excesses of Bush and his Republican majority. Either they don't see them as excesses or they don't think that pushing back is worth being viewed as uncivil.
We believe otherwise. The true "second civil war" in defense of our Constitution is not going to be won by those who fear looking foolish or shrill or vulgar. Like the rabble who tossed tea into harbors, argued in taverns, cursed the British and wrote a quite intemperate Declaration of Independence, we're willing to risk the censure of the likes of Brownstein (and Broder and Lieberman and their fellow travelers). Indeed, we're eager to take a stand in a very uncivil war. Unlike, unfortunately, those who choose to "cover" us.