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May 31, 2005

Deep Nostalgia

There's something sad and quaint about the massive coverage the Washington Post is giving to the revelation that an FBI official named Mark Felt was the legendary Deep Throat: the primary source for the Post's own Woodward-Bernstein revelations about the Watergate scandal. It's kind of sad because WaPo is having to acknowledge being scooped on this story by Vanity Fair, which must really hurt. The Post's coverage of Watergate, after all, is what basically established it as a national Newspaper of Record right up there with the New York Times.The coverage is quaint because it serves as a reminder of a very different era of political journalism, and of journalism generally. Unless you are old enough to really remember Watergate, you might have trouble understanding the extent to which this one story dominated newspapers and network news for months and months on end. Nowdays the only story that can approach this kind of media obsession is a celebrity trial (or, following the American Idol template, a trial of "ordinary" people who play culturally stereotypical roles). The only political story out there now with the potential to morph into something vaguely approaching Watergate is the Casino Shakedown Scandal, which for sheer drama, irony, and symbolic resonance is actually a lot more interesting than Watergate itself. And again, it's the Post (with recent assists from the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) that's putting the story together, apparently without any assistance from a Deep Throat. Maybe lightning will strike twice for the Post, but more likely, the Deep Throat revelation is the last news from the last truly dominant political story of our times.

May 30, 2005

Memorial Day

This is in many respects the most ironic of American holidays (with the possible exception of the orgy of consumption commemorating the birth of that preeminent anti-consumer, Jesus Christ). Established to honor those fallen in war, Memorial Day has become a signpost to the advent of the langorous season of summer, marked by such un-martial and non-sacrificial past-times as beachcombing and barbecuing. Certainly some have argued that these activities are among the blessings of liberty and prosperity for which American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have sacrificed. But that's too easy a rationalization, much like George W. Bush's injunction after 9/11 that Americans could best fight terrorism by shopping and traveling.Many of us have reason on Memorial Day to remember family members of the distant or recent past who have died in combat. And all of us should spend at least a few moments thinking about the countless, often nameless young men (and increasingly, young women) who were sent into the shadow of the Valley of Death on our behalf, and never came back.But we should also think about the responsibility we have as citizens to make such journeys uneccesary: to create a world where young people don't have to go into strange lands and enter the ultimate lottery of random injury and death, usually at the hands of enemies they hardly see.Those of us who are indifferent to politics and civic life should reflect on the simple fact that virtually every war reflects the failure of politics and civic life; the breakdown of peaceful arrangements painfully developed over time; and the incompetence or ideological excesses of politicians on one or both sides of most wars.I won't go into a long history of modern wars, but think about this:The deadliest war in American history was the Civil War, which was touched off not by impersonal forces or irrepressible socio-cultural conflicts, but by the self-absorbed idiocy of a few hotheads in South Carolina, drunk on the prose of Sir Walter Scott, who dragged their region and ultimately their country into a battle over the doomed and evil institution of slavery.And the deadliest World War (at least for combatants), World War I, was a maddeningly pointless war caused by the incompetence of politicians and diplomats who developed a pattern of alliances that gave a handful of Serbian nationalists and Austrian militarists the ability to pull five continents into the trenches.The great military strategist Clausewitz once memorably defined war as "politics continued by other means." A better definition would be that war is the failure of politics continued by other means.So as we honor those who have died for America in good and ambiguous wars, for clear and hazy purposes, let's remember this: we owe each and every one of our fallen heroes, and those we place in harm's way today, a politics aimed at making these sacrifices less numerous, and at reducing the sway of homicidal folly in the politics of every country on earth. That may well mean a more active and even militant U.S. foreign policy. But it definitely means we must, in honor of our heroes past, present and future, remain vigilant against the folly that great superpowers so often embrace.

May 29, 2005

New Forum

I'd guess most of my regular readers also habitually visit Josh Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo site. If so, you probably know Josh is about to launch a whole new site, TPMCafe.com, that will probably rival DailyKos as an all-purpose, multi-faceted portal for progressive discussion, with a different tone: less agitprop and abusive language, and more diversity of views. Both sites will have their loyalists, and many readers will regularly visit both, but the competition will be healthy.A centerpiece of Josh's new site will be a group blog called The Coffee House, which will be frequented by yours truly, by my colleague The Moose, and by a truly distinguished company that ranges from polymath Michael Lind to deep blogger Mark Schmitt to policy entrepreneur Karen Kornbluh to bestseller socio-religious author Annie Lamott. The Coffee House goes live on Tuesday, May 31, and while I intend to be an active participant, NewDonkey will continue to offer its distinctive take without interruption or distraction. I hope you will visit the new site, but stick with me here as well.

May 27, 2005

Lucinda In the Raw

Well, it's Memorial Day weekend, and having already departed from political commentary by touting the stylistic excesses of one piece in the current online edition of The New Republic, I might as well mention another: a stunning review of Lucinda Williams' musical development by David Jaffe. If you are interested in Williams' music, the southern musical idiom, or simply the painful irrationality of human relationships, Jaffe's piece is a must-read. His basic hypothesis is that Lucinda's power as an artist has increased as she has aged and has begun to replace musical virtuosity with the savage intensity of her rage against the bad men she incorrigibly loves. And his writing is as raw and disturbing as Williams' music has become during her powerfully libidinous mid-life crisis.

Long Overhand Hook

Most writers have a favorite stylistic vice, a practice that stubbornly violates the canons for reasons of emphasis, clarity, or just plain self-indulgence. Mine is the long and sometimes awkward clinching sentence that seals an argument with a strong and snarky punch. Having made it through college without once taking a composition or journalism course, I toss these off with the primitive innocence of the self-educated.I mention this to introduce an outstanding example of my favorite stylistic vice, penned by freelance writer Christopher Hayes, that appears in an unfriendly review of a right-wing book (Steven Malanga's The New New Left) in The New Republic. After scathingly analyzing the author's dismissal of latter-day organizers for the working poor as "special interests," Hayes offers up this line, which is the verbal equivalent of a boxer delivering a long overhand hook for the knockout:

Malanga thinks that janitors who clean buildings for eight dollars an hour are a special interest, while I tend to think that middle-age white guys whose cushy sinecures at conservative think tanks nicely insulate them from the vicissitudes of the same free market they so fetishize are a special interest.
Elegant? No. Faithful to Strunk and White? Hell, no. Would the New York Times have published this sentence? Of course not. But I like its style.

May 26, 2005

NewDonkey Rejects Mehlman Endorsement

This morning, when I was still trying to get the fog out of my brain, I started getting all these congratulatory emails, enclosing a crumb from today's edition of the Washington Insider's Daily Bread, ABC's The Note:

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman travels to Virginia to endorse Ed Kilgore's gubernatorial bid. Mehlman then participates in an ed board meeting with African American reporters. DNC Chairman Howard Dean is in New York City.
Before asking the DLC press office to email Mark Halperin and demand a correction of "Ed" to "Jerry" (it was changed on the web, and tomorrow's Note will include a formal correction), I did indulge in a brief fantasy. Wouldn't a NewDonkey/Tim Kaine gubernatorial contest be a real breath of fresh air for the Ol' Commonwealth of Virginia? We could have a vibrant debate over my proposal to put out an All Points Bulletin to the State Police to intercept Grover Norquist if he crosses the Potomac to engage in tax-cut demagogeury. Our platforms would also differ considerably, with Kaine laying out a detailed policy blueprint covering property taxes, education, and the budget, while I stuck to my simple message of "Mark Warner--What He Said."But in the end, I did the responsible thing and issued a Sherman Statement, which native Georgians rarely do.Still, it's got to trouble the Attorney General of Virginia that among the omniscient political junkies of The Note, he didn't win a word association contest when the name "Kilgore" popped up.So I will repeat my earlier challenge to Jerry Kilgore: to avoid further confusion, one of us should change his name. Since I had it first, it's only fair that you do the right thing and pick a new monniker.UPDATE: An alert reader reminded me that ol' Jerry is no longer Attorney General of Virginia. He resigned the post to run for Governor; thus, he holds no elected office, a status to which I hope he becomes reconciled.

May 25, 2005

Just Another Baby-Kissing Pol

There, above the fold, in this morning's Washington Post was a photo of George W. Bush performing that most hackneyed ritual of the politician: kissing a baby. The baby in question, it transpires, is what certain life-begins-at-conception advocates call a "Snowflake"--a child that develops from an embryo "rescued" through adoption from a fertility clinic.This photo-op was designed to dramatize Bush's threat to veto a stem cell research bill passed yesterday by the U.S. House, and that is certain to pass the Senate as well. But what it really does is to graphically illustrate the intellectual incoherence, moral relativism, and political opportunism of his position.Matt Yglesias has a good summary of the manifold absurdities of Bush making this the first veto of his presidency. But the worst of these absurdities is at the very center of his allegedly "principled" stand against federal funding of research on new embryonic stem cells obtained from embyros scheduled for destruction at IV fertility clinics.He's not for banning federal funds for research on existing stem cells, mind you--even though the "moral complicity" arguments applies as much to old as new stem cell lines. He's not for banning research so long as it's funded by somebody other than Uncle Sam. And most importantly, he's not for banning the deliberate creation and destruction of embryos at fertility clinics, even though that is where all of the "destruction of human life" goes on.But those aren't all the "anti-life" practices George W. Bush doesn't seem to be against. The only possible rationale for his position on federal funding of stem cell research is that he shares the hard-line Right to Life movement belief that human beings deserving the full protection of the law exist from the moment of conception. So why isn't he calling for ban on IUDs or "morning after" pills? (To be sure, his FDA is trying to make it harder for women to get morning-after pills, but if there's been any talk of a ban, I haven't heard it). All these practics, in addition to the creation of "excess" embryos at fertility clinics, and surgical abortion procedures, are part of what the moment-of-conception people regard as a vast slaughter of innocent human beings far worse than anything that has happened in recorded history.So George W. Bush's "deeply principled" response to all this alleged homicide is to take it out on scientists who are at least trying to get some positive, pro-life healing from just one of these practices?That's why this is perhaps the worst of many cynical panders that Bush continues to make to the Cultural Right. He's with them, he says, so long as it does not discomfit the vast majority of Americans who may be troubled by the number and nature of some abortions, but who think, if they think about it at all, that the life-begins-at-conception positionis metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that defies common sense.So on the stem cell issue, Bush does not deserve praise for being courageous or principled. He's just another baby-kissing pol who thinks he's found a convenient way to appeal to one group without completely alienating others.

May 24, 2005

Who's Zoomin' Who?

In the wake of the deal that (at least temporarily) derailed the Nuclear Option on judicial nominations, the most striking thing about the reaction has been the general satisfaction of Democrats and even much of the blogospheric Left, and the glumness of Republicans, along with angry hysterics among the leadership of the Cultural Right. Sure, there's a heap o' spinning going on all around, but the fury of guys like Dobson and Bauer appears genuine, and there is a general agreement across the ideological spectrum that the whole incident represents a big body blow to the presidential aspirations of Bill Frist, and perhaps to his future viability as Boss of the Senate.But in terms of unhappiness on the Right, the question remains: whose idea, exactly, was it to make this issue so central to the GOP/Religious Conservative alliance? My general assumption has been that the Nuclear Strategy was forced onto the White House and the Republican Party by a Cultural Right that's finally demanding results from their partners on an agenda--overturning abortion rights, reversing gay rights advances, and stopping all this church-state separation crap--that depends on reshaping the Supreme Court. But in an interesting essay today, the estimable Mark Schmitt, citing an exceptionally articulate post on the conservative site redstate.org, suggests that maybe it's the other way around: the Nuclear Option is just another cynical effort by the GOP to get the Cultural Right fully invested in their D.C. power games.So, with apologies to Aretha Franklin, the question is: Who's zoomin' who here?Not being privy to the internal councils of the Republican Party or the Cultural Right, I talked to a couple of smart conservatives of my acquaintance, and came away convinced that there is truth to both perspectives. The general strategy of focusing obsessively on judges was forced on the GOP by the Cultural Right. But the specific tactic of the Nuclear Option was developed by legal beagles on the Hill and in the cells of the Federalist Society as a way to placate the Cultural Right without entering into an immediate and explosive national debate on the shape of the Supreme Court, and issues like abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation.Here's pretty much, I gather, how the thing was put together. Cultural Right leaders, growing angrier for years about the excuses being made by D.C. Republicans for failure to make progress on their agenda, finally started getting fed up after the 2004 elections created the great judicial opportunity of a second Bush term, and the largest GOP majority in the Senate since 1930. Tired of hearing that Republicans couldn't do anything about the godless judges without 60 votes, they basically said, "Figure something out." And that's where the Nuclear Option came in.As fate would have it, the Schiavo fiasco occurred during the run-up to the judicial confrontation, vastly increasing the investment of the Cultural Right in this issue. And then Bill Frist decided this was his ticket to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.So everybody rolled the dice and then crapped out. And the irony of the incident (unless, as is entirely possible, the Nuclear Option is revived and deployed later this year) is that while this may not have begun as a cynical beltway scam designed to frustrate the foot soldiers of the Right, that may be how it's being interpreted by said foot soldiers at the moment.After all, some of them must be aware that the segment of Senate Republicans who are relieved about The Deal is not confined to the seven GOPers who formally signed it (dubbed "the Satanic Seven" by some angry talk show callers today, according to water-cooler intel from my semi-omniscient colleague The Moose). Arlen Specter and Trent Lott didn't sign The Deal, and everybody thinks they were involved in cooking it up. How confident can the Cultural Right be that when push comes to shove in a future Supreme Court nomination fight, the White House can be trusted to send up a sure vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade, or that these slippery Senate Republicans will get that sure vote confirmed, through either conventional or nuclear weapons?In other words, this incident is going to vastly raise the stakes, and the penalty for failure, in future judicial fights, with the whole elaborately constructed, and politically and spiritually hazardous, relationship of the Cultural Right and the GOP hanging in the balance.

May 23, 2005

Santorum On Bush As the "First Catholic President"

In my last post, a long meditation on the disturbing political implications of the religious right's "prophetic stance" against American society, I quoted extensively from a brilliant review by Alan Wolfe in The New Republic, but in pursuing my own theories, didn't completely do justice to Wolfe's piece. But after reading the profile of Rick Santorum in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, one of Wolfe's observations struck me as especially trenchant: "In these days of conservative ecumenicalism...all that matters on the right is whether your beliefs are conservative and not what your beliefs actually are." That's certainly true of Santorum. According to Michael Sokolove's profile, Santorum in 2002, alluding to Toni Morrison's famous description of Bill Clinton as "the first African-American president," called George W. Bush "the first Catholic president." Sokolove asked Santorum the obvious question: what about America's actual Catholic president, John F. Kennedy? And Santorum basically said Kennedy wasn't much of a Catholic at all, because, like many Catholic Democrats today, he "sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing.''Bush, on the other hand, is a better Catholic than JFK, suggests Santorum, because his views are consistent with "Catholic social teaching." So there you have it: two thousand years of scripture, Church Fathers, creeds, counsels, scholastic philosophy, monastic traditions, saints and martyrs, liturgy, and magisterium, are hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the Right's contemporary obsession with abortion and gay rights. Despite the inelegance of his words, Santorum serves as an eloquent example of Wolfe's point about the debasement of conservative Christianity by its essentially secular dedication to partisan politics.

May 22, 2005

False Prophets

Surely there is no subject on which more words are currently being said with less real meaning than that of the intersection of religion and politics in America. And that is why you ought to read a recent New Republic piece by the indispensable Alan Wolfe, who cuts through the fog like a search-light.In the format of a review of Jim Wallis' much-discussed God's Politics, along with a collection of case studies of religio-political cooperative ventures, Wolfe pens a long, eloquent and often angry essay about the growing willingness of evangelical Christian leaders to reject the liberal principles of tolerance, pluralism and church-state separation that made the growth of their own tradition possible in the first place.In other words, suggets Wolfe, they've traded their birthright for a mess of pottage:

They have rendered under Caesar what is Caesar's: themselves, as it happens, and all the political power that comes with them. They dwell not in the house of the Lord, but in the House of Representatives. Their prayer breakfasts are strategy sessions, their churches are auxiliaries of political parties, their pastors are political bosses. Their God must be great: look at the clout of his constituency.
In plunging into illiberal politics, says Wolfe, conservative evangelicals have willfully forgotten that America's liberal traditions, especially those expressed in the First Amendment towards which they so often express contempt, have been essential to their ability to grow and develop in the past, and may become so again in the future. To the extent their alliance with the Republican Party is successfully tempting the GOP to abandon its own vestiges of respect for the liberal tradition, both sides of the bargain are being corrupted. Or as Wolfe puts it, "The politicization of the religious right has done great damage to both religion and politics."Not surprisingly, this approach leads Wolfe to take a rather dim view of Jim Wallis' case for mobilizing an Evangelical Left. While acknowledging that Wallis has a vastly more biblically grounded case for his politics than James Dobson does for his, Wolfe worries that Wallis wants to play the same game with the same result.
In adopting much of the language of Christian evangelicalism, Wallis brings along its problems. Its participation in politics has led the religious right to a position in which its politics have driven out its faith. God's Politics is proposing the same degradation for the left. For the left would certainly suffer a similar fate if it adopted the prophetic stance that Wallis urges.
I'm not sure that's entirely fair to Wallis, but Wolfe uses a phrase here that I think is very important in understanding the psychology of the religious right: adopting a prophetic stance.As you may know, in the Judeo-Christian tradition one who takes a prophetic stance believes the moral and spiritual conditions of a society have become so depraved that the faithful are obliged to step outside the normal bounds of civility and respect for authority and call down the righteous wrath of God. Taking a prophetic stance is by definition exceptional; occasionally essential, but always spiritually as well as politically dangerous. And that is why true prophets are so greatly honored, and false prophets are so feared and despised.My guess is that the leaders of the religious right know how perilous their adoption of the prophetic stance truly is. And this knowledge explains, better than any other factor, the remarkable tone of paranoia, self-pity, and even hysteria that has come to characterize their political utterances.If, say, the existence of legalized abortion is attributable to legitimate and honorable differences of opinion about the intersection of law, ethics, and reproductive biology--and even of religious tradition--then legalized abortion could not of itself justify a radical decision to make political activity a religious obligation--indeed, the most important religious obligation. That is why religious right leaders have to say to themselves and their followers that pro-choice Americans are consciously promoting infanticide and euthanasia.If advocacy of equal rights for gays and lesbians is simply an expression of tolerance and inclusion, and of a sense that it is the logical next step in the long American drive towards fully equal citizenship for all people, then the efforts of a few jurisdictions to extend those rights into domestic arrangements, and the reluctance of "liberals" to stop them, are hardly grounds for creating a church-based national movement to write prohibitions of gay marriages or civil unions into the U.S. and state constitutions. (Indeed, if the prevailing scientific view that homosexuality is primarily a biological orientation is true, then it's the opponents of gay rights who are defying both natural law and divine providence). That is why religious right leaders have to attribute to their opponents a quasi-totalitarian determination to destroy the institution of marriage itself, as part of a broader agenda of complete moral relativism.And if court decisions restricting the use of public places or funds for religious purposes are a plausible, if sometimes excessive, interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, then they don't justify a radical assault on the judiciary by either religious leaders or by the Republican Party. After all, are a few town hall creches, a few government grants, and a few watered-down public school prayers, really worth the kind of savage warfare over judicial nominations we are witnessing in Washington right now? No, and that is why religious right leaders keep making the claim that today's judiciary is engaged in a systematic battle to destroy religious liberty, and to deny people of faith the opportunity to serve as judges.More generally--and this is the most important point I want to make--the prophetic stance is rapidly leading the religious right and its political allies into a contempt for their own country and their fellow citizens, because, after all, the prophetic stance is implictly reserved as an extraordinary response to fundamentally wicked societies. It's no wonder James Dobson keeps comparing himself to the leaders of the German Confessing Church of the Nazi era, or that religious right politician Rick Santorum can't stop himself from comparing his Democratic opponents on judicial nominations to Hitler.Religious right leaders, who love to proclaim their patriotism, cannot, of course, accept the logic that is inexorably driving them towards hatred of America. And that's the source of their constant and increasingly absurd search for evidence that "liberals" are actually, covertly, and illegitimately in charge of the country despite Republican control of the federal government, the strong position of institutions like the business community and the military that conservatives love, and indeed, the robust growth of the conservative evangelical movement itself.If I'm right about all this, or even half-right, there's not much surprising about the total-war rhetoric and tactics the religious right has embraced, infecting the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and, increasingly, American political discourse generally with a bitter and unforgiving tone. After all, these leaders have to believe that "liberals" and Democrats and anyone who stands in their way are not only trying to kill babies and old people, destroy marriage, abolish all moral codes, and persecute Christians, but are also bent on subverting democracy. Otherwise, those leaders who have gambled their faith on a prophetic stance would clearly stand exposed to the terrible accusation, made so powerfully by Alan Wolfe, that they have traded the Kingdom of God for political power, and are just as secular-minded as the most convinced atheist.

May 21, 2005

Mary Phagan and Leo Frank

Need a break from the "nuclear option" debate? So do I, so please allow me talk about, and recommend, a truly remarkable book I just finished reading.When Steve Oney's massive book, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, was published in the fall of 2003, I made a mental note to read it but didn't get around to buying it until a couple of weeks ago, when I stumbled on a paperback copy in New Orleans.For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Phagan/Frank saga, these are the basic facts: in Atlanta in 1913, on Confederate Memorial Day, a 13-year-old pencil factory worker named Mary Phagan was gruesomely murdered at her place of work. Within days, the factory's manager, an Ivy League-educated member of Atlanta's hyper-respectable German Jewish community, Leo Frank, was arrested for the murder, and ultimately convicted and sentenced to death by hanging after a trial that revolved around the testimony of an alleged accomplice-after-the-fact, an African-American janitor at the factory named Jim Conley.During a long and unsuccessful series of legal appeals of the conviction, Frank's case became a national and international sensation, and a source of bitter sectional and religious animosity. At the last possible moment, Frank's execution was commuted to life imprisonment by an outgoing Governor with close links to the defense attorneys, sparking widespread public outrage in Georgia. And finally, in August of 1915, a group of men from the Phagan family's ancestral home in Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Frank from a state prison farm, drove him halfway across to state to a spot near Marietta, and lynched him--an event that was met with wild celebrations in many parts of Georgia and much anger up north, especially among New York's rapidly growing Jewish immigrant population.This story is generally remembered as an American Dreyfus Case, with Frank being framed and then lynched primarily because he was Jewish. But as Oney explains, in his painstakingly detailed but lively account, there was a whole lot more going on than simple antisemitism. Among the many dimensions of the case he illuminates, there were these:(1) Journalistic competition. As it happens, the Phagan murder coincided with an intense newspaper circulation battle in Atlanta, sparked by the appearance of a Hearst paper called The Georgian, which initially viewed the case through the prism of Hearst's nationwide battle against child labor abuses. With The Georgian and its Atlanta rivals, The Journal and The Constitution, all hyping the case with constant extras, the police and legal authorities were under enormous pressure to make a quick arrest even before the evidence had been sifted. Much later in the saga, journalism again became a big factor, with many northern papers, most especially The New York Times, leading a crusade for Frank's release and/or commutation.(2) Primitive criminal investigation procedures. Oney's account provides a shocking demonstration of the shortcomings of criminal investigations and forensic science in the early twentieth century. Most of the physical evidence in the Phagan case was ignored or mishandled. Some of Georgia's best physicians could never conclusively determine whether the child was raped or violated in any way, though the prosecution's case completely relied on a sexual motive for the murder. Frank's (and for that matter, Conley's) guilt or innocence basically came down to conflicting circumstantial evidence and the credibility of the two principals' eyewitness testimony. Ultimately one piece of physical evidence--"murder notes" admittedly written by Conley in the guise of an accusation by the victim, but which Conley claimed were composed by Frank--became the centerpiece of the case for Frank's commutation, and years later, for his posthumous vindication--but was not central in the trial or the appeals.(3) Race. Oney also untangles the racial aspects of Frank's conviction and lynching. At the time, a big part of the sensation surrounding the Frank trial was that a respectable white man was being convicted primarily on the testimony of a disreputable black man--in Jim Crow Georgia. And there's no question Frank's attorneys, and some of his journalistic supporters, played the race card aggressively, describing the murder as a classic "Negro crime." But racist assumptions about Jim Conley also hurt Frank, because jurors believed Conley incapable of conceiving, executing, and covering up the murder, or of composing the "murder notes." The central figure in Oney's account of the racial implications of the case, and the book's only real hero (other than Governor Slaton) is Conley's attorney, William Smith. Smith signed onto the prosecution team out of an unusual but lifelong concern for racial equality for African-Americans, and a fear that Conley would become a convenient scapegoat for the murder. But after brilliantly defending Conley by prosecuting Frank, Smith realized that his client was a very intelligent and relatively well-educated man who was entirely capable of hiding his crime and framing Frank. This soon led Smith to re-investigate the case on his own and passionately advocate Frank's innocence.(4) Sex. Although the physical evidence of a sexual motive for Phagan's murder was botched, Oney leaves no doubt that everyone involved assumed such a motive was central. And despite widespread stereotypes about the sexual interest of African-American men towards white women, Conley was able to deflect this suspicion elsewhere by explicitly suggesting that Frank's sexual proclivities were "unnatural,"--i.e., not revolving around "normal" intercourse. That was a "vice" that was associated not with African-Americans but with "cosmopolitan" sybarites from alien places like France or New York, and thus, with men with backgrounds like Leo Frank's. The belief that Frank was a sexual predator with outsized and perhaps perverse appetites was reinforced by questionable but not completely refuted testimony at his trial by a number of Phagan's "factory girl" peers that he sometimes took occasion to enter their dressing room without notice or otherwise press his attentions on them. In a long and interesting interview with WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi during his book tour, Oney acknowleges that although he is fairly certain Frank was innocent of the murder, the factory manager may have been guilty of what we now think of as sexual harrassment.(5) Class. Long before race became a factor in the Phagan/Frank case, economic class loomed very large. Phagan was a living example of the extent to which Atlanta's entry into the Industrial Age depended on cheap child labor; she began working full-time at the age of ten. And there's little question that the big villain in inciting Frank's lynching, the aging paragon of radical southern populism, Tom Watson, first treated the Frank trial as a parable of rich capitalists seeking to escape responsibility for the physical, as well as economic, exploitation of poor southerners forced off the land into factories. Eventually, Watson descended into blatant antisemitism, but his constant attacks on the rich northern Jews fighting for Frank's freedom generally emphasized the adjectives rather than the noun. And Watson's fury was really directed at Frank's defenders in Georgia--men like Frank's temporary savior, Governor Slaton--who in his view represented a long and dishonorable tradition of "scalawag" surrender to the Northern Capitalism that defeated the Confederacy and dominated Reconstruction.(6) The Conspiracy of Silence. The most original contribution of Oney's book is his excavation of the plot to lynch Leo Frank, and his explanation of why, after all the furor, the case vanished from the public eye for many decades. As he makes plain, the lynching was the product of a well-coordinated plan involving many of the leading citizens of Marietta, encompassing a takeover of the state administration of prisons, and utilizing a series of threats and bribes to secure the passive complicity of Frank's custodians. And the plan included the subversion of the only forum in which the lynchers could have been brought to justice: a Marietta grand jury on which seven members of the lynch mob served, guided by a prosecutor who helped design the whole scheme.Oney documents the rich political rewards earned by many of those who worked to hang Leo Frank, from the chief prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, who was soon elected governor, to Tom Watson, who ended his erratic career as a U.S. Senator, to suspected lynch mob participant John Wood, who survived into the 1950s to serve as chairman of the notorious U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. But he also explains why Frank's defenders fell silent. The New York Times stopped publishng articles and editorials on the case when publisher Adolph Ochs became convinced his earlier crusade had contributed to the climate that produced the lynching. And in Georgia, virtually everybody--the lynch mob's supporters and abbetters, the chastened Atlanta newspapers, and a deeply traumatized Jewish community--agreed to put the case behind them.The Phagan/Frank case would probably have become a mere historical footnote, and an occasional source of grievance for Jewish Americans, except for the fact that in the early 1980s a previously unknown witness appeared: another African-American employee of the pencil factory named Alonzo Hall. In a near-deathbed disclosure, Hall confessed that on the day of the murder he had seen Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan's body towards the factory basement, where it was later found.The Hall confession led to a resurgence of interest in the case, and ultimately, to an unsuccessful 1983 effort to get the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to posthumously pardon Frank. While the Board ultimately decided that the Hall revelation was insufficient to clearly establish Frank's innocence (in part because much of the original evidence had been lost or destroyed), it did later issue an official apology for the State's failure to protect Frank from lynching. But Hall's testimony had another effect: it convinced a Georgia-bred Southern California journalist named Steve Oney to get obsessively interested in the case.Now I admit my fascination with this book is partly parochial. I spent nearly four decades living near or in Atlanta, where most of "my people" still live. My mother recently told me my grandmother used to sing "The Ballad of Mary Phagan"--a protest song against the commutation of Leo Frank's death sentence, and later, the anthem of pro-lynching advocates across Georgia. I graduated from high school in Cobb County, not far from the lynching site, at a time when the community was just beginning to abandon the rural pineywoods heritage Oney vividly describes. My in-laws hail from the mountain town of Dahlonega, where William Smith began and ended his quixotic lifelong search for justice, equality and honor. And I have long been very interested in the career of Tom Watson as a cautionary tale about the dangers of assuming that economic populism is inherently a progressive impulse.But even if this saga did not call up so many familiar ghosts, I'd be tempted to write about this book and the 17-year struggle of its author to research and write it. It's the kind of tribute that we unreflective and impulsive bloggers ought to occasionally pay to those who say not a word until they've got the story right.

May 20, 2005

The Frist Trifecta

I can't even imagine how dreadful it must be to work in the U.S. Senate right now. Just watching the runup to the "nuclear option" from a safe distance is dispiriting enough. I thought the Schiavo thing was the most bizarre, contrived and self-destructive congressional fiasco I'd ever seen, but this is worse, and Lord only knows how long it will last, since the maestro of this production, Bill Frist, dare not go for a vote until he's sure he's got 50. Frist does, of course, have to worry that every hour of fresh debate will tempt the Rick Santorums in his ranks to go over the brink into another offensive Nazi analogy.But the thing about Frist (and his buddies over at the White House) that I've been struggling to understand is this: if he gets his "nuclear option," one bad thing will happen to the Republican coalition right away, because the business community (whose lobbyists, best I can tell, generally think the whole idea of making judicial confirmations an Armageddon issue is as dumb as a sack of hammers) is going to be really honked off at the goodies they'll lose when Democrats shut down non-essential Senate business.But it's unlikely that bad thing is going to be balanced by any good thing for the GOP. Sure, the Cultural Right will be grateful for the win after years of being played for suckers, but they'll also actually increase their demands for right-wing judicial nominations. Without the excuse of needing 60 votes for a confirmation, how can Republicans possibly argue against, say, ensuring that any Supreme Court nominee is someone who's got a garage full of fetus posters?I ran this line of questioning by a very shrewd friend of mine who knows the Senate and its Leader pretty well, and this was his response:

Look, if you're Bill Frist, you know you're out of here in eighteen months, and then you're on the presidential campaign trail, having punched your ticket with the Right. He doesn't give a damn about the long-term consequences for the Senate or the Party. If he thinks about them at all, he probably figures, "I'll fix it once I'm in the White House."

We all know strange things happen in the minds of people who start seeing the Next President of the United States in the bathroom mirror each morning, or humming "Hail to the Chief" over breakfast. Hunter Thompson once compared presidential wannabes to "bull elks in rut," crashing through the woods blindly and self-destructively at the first sound of an cow elk call.But ol' Bill must have a pretty advanced case of the presidential hots to willingly go down in history not only as the guy who made the Supreme Court safe for wingnuts, but as the Majority Leader who sought to turn the U.S. Senate into a less representative version of the U.S. House, while reducing the constitutional powers of the Congress as a whole with respect to the executive branch. That's a real trifecta of irresponsibility.

May 19, 2005

The Real Hillary

I'm not much in the habit of praising articles about the Democratic Party that appear in The Nation, but they've just posted an article about Hillary Clinton by New York Magazine columnist Greg Sargent that is really essential reading. Debunking the "Hillary's moving to the center to defraud voters" line that people like Dick Morris have been peddling, Sargent offers a nuanced view of Clinton's recent policy and political positions that depicts her as a complex thinker who pursues progressive goals through flexible means appropriate to middle-class values and what's actually doable.Here's the money quote:

In essence, she's triangulating against herself: she's revealing the common-sense-solution-embracing Hillary, in contrast to the left-wing ideologue her caricaturists gave us. It helps that Hillary, while extraordinarily shrewd and calculating, also really is hard-working, hard-headed and culturally moderate. In the end, the irony is that her effort is working not just because it's smart politics but also because it's largely genuine.
Read the whole thing, but the passage above suggests that Sen. Clinton's effort to redefine herself as herself is a pretty good reflection of the challenge facing a complex, progressive-minded, but essentially hard-headed and moderate Democratic Party as a whole.

May 18, 2005

Money Changers In Ralph's Temple

I know my colleague The Moose has already blogged about this story, but being a native of Georgia, there are a few additional ironies I'd like to point out about the latest Indian Casino Shakedown revelation, which puts Ralph Reed, candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, in more trouble than a wounded rooster in a cockfight.In a nice bit of relay journalism, the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have pieced together this fascinating tale of hypocrisy, deception, and political insider trading:In 2000, then-Governor Don Siegelman arranged for a referendum in Alabama to create a state lottery for education, the centerpiece of his entire agenda. A certain Casino operating Mississippi tribe (probably the Choctaws) didn't want the competition of public gaming in Alabama. The Native Americans' Best Friend, Jack Abamoff suggested they channel money through Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which would then send the cash down to 'Bama to help kill the lottery. Norquist subsequently sent checks totaling $1.15 million to an anti-lottery group and to the campaign's top backer, the Christian Coalition of Alabama, which vocally refuses to take gambling money. The anti-lottery folks then channeled the same money to Ralph Reed's Atlanta-based political consulting firm, which used it to run the (successful) anti-gambling campaign.This tale is remarkably similar to the 1999 Texas anti-gambling gambit that's part of the broader Abramoff/Scanlon Casino Shakedown scandal, except for Norquist's role as the launderer, and the size of Ralph Reed's take: his firm received $4.2 million in gambling money for the Lone Star anti-gambling initiative. And there's one more crucial wrinkle as well: even though Reed is again protesting that he had no idea where the money came from, this time the president of the Alabama Christian Coalition, John Giles, is getting pretty close to accusing Reed of lying.

"On at least a couple of occasions, John Giles called to ask if I was absolutely sure there was no gambling money — direct or indirect — in any money they had received," said John Pudner, then a senior project manager at [Reed's firm] Century Strategies. "Giles even told me he wanted to issue a press release stating this — and I went and asked Ralph to make sure, and Ralph assured me there was no gambling money involved."
In other words, Reed made an affirmative assurance the money was clean, and he based that on an assurance from--you guessed it--Jack Abramoff. Now as many of you may already know, Abramoff, Norquist and Reed go way, way back together: Grover and Ralph were Abramoff's deputies when Casino Jack ran the College Republicans in the early 1980s. The idea that Reed didn't have a clue his old boss was making tens of millions of dollars representing tribes with casions, and/or it didn't occur to Ralph that the millions Abramoff was sending his way might have something to do with those associations, is just beyond belief. The involvement of John Giles in this money triangle adds the final twist of irony. Not only is Giles one of the most visible leaders in what's left of Ralph's old stomping grounds, the Christian Coalition; he's also best known in Alabama for his insanely strong belief that Jesus hates taxes like the devil himself. Giles was a powerful figure in the successful campaign to drub a referendum sponsored by Republican Governor Bob Riley in 2003 to reform the state's antediluvian tax code to help improve Alabama's dreadfully underfinanced public education system (a campaign, BTW, in which Norquist's ATR played a national role). More recently, Giles's Christian Coalition helped defeat another referendum to amend the Alabama Constitution to take out a section mandating segregated schools, on grounds that the step would create a right to public education (imagine that), and hence, according to his logic, higher taxes.So you've got Casino Jack giving gambling money to anti-tax zealot Norquist who gives it to anti-tax-zealot-Christian-Right activist Giles who gives it to Christian-Right-activist-politician Reed. Even as they point fingers at each other, they're all living in the house that Jack built by shaking down tribes.And that brings me back to the campaign of Ralph Reed. After the original Abramoff scandal broke, with Ralph professing ignorance and innocence about his pivotal role, some politically knowledgeable people in Georgia figured he'd brazen it out, while others thought it would eventually derail his campaign. Now he's got a whole new set of allegations to deal with, exhibiting a clear pattern, and a guy as smart as Reed will be hard-pressed to explain why a man as dumb as he claims he was in these capers should be elected to statewide office.

May 17, 2005

Having It Both Ways

Now and then an issue comes along that really forces politicians to deal with the internal contradictions of their supposed principles. Today's lopsided Senate passage of a $295 billion highway bill will provide a nice test for Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.Note for the record that the Bush administration has thundered for some time about the transcendent necessity of holding this bill down to $284 billion. And indeed, the implicit veto threat aimed at this bill--recognizing that Bush, well over four years into his presidency, has yet to use the veto pen even once--is the tiny fig leaf disguising the White House's continuing devotion to fiscal profligacy of the highest order, as evidenced by still more demands for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and a Social Security privatization scheme that would add still more trillions to the national debt.Recall as well that in the recent campaign, Bush was treated by his handlers and his party as a Churchillian World-Historical Figure dominating the planet--a figure who presumably might have the clout to convince his hand-picked Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, to pare $11 billion from a highway bill ($12 billion of which, by the way, were for congressional "earmarks").Yet Frist was one of 46 Republican Senators who voted for this bill. For the most part, these are the same folks who not only are insisting on more tax cuts for the wealthy, but who very recently were claiming that the fiscal situation required deep cuts in Medicaid and food stamps, affecting both the states and the most vulnerable Americans.The whole issue casts a large and useful spotlight on the contemporary GOP's efforts to have it both ways on fiscal policy: supporting spending restraint in the abstract, but flip-flopping on any occasion when restraint might impair their image as Big Dogs in Washington capable of bringing home the bacon, or, worse yet, affect some Republican constituency.This will be interesting to watch.

Eyes on the Non-Nuclear Prize

Like the rest of you who aren't privy to the internal doings of the U.S. Senate, I do not know about the political prospects of the current effort towards a compromise that would limit filibusters to five of the ten Bush Court of Appeals appointees, while preserving it in the Senate rules, which means preserving it for future Supreme Court nominees. I also don't know if, absent a compromise, Bill Frist can get the votes to "go nuclear" and ram through approval of all ten judges while paving the way for a right-wing activist reshaping of the Supreme Court.But I certainly wouldn't be inclined to take the risk that a hard line by Senate Democrats won't completely backfire, either. If enough Republicans can be convinced to go for this deal to guarantee the failure of the nuclear option, Democrats would be well advised to jump on it. Personally, while I'm not a big fan of any of the ten proposed Court of Appeals judges, I am really worried about two of them: Owens and Brown, who happen to the be two Frist intends to use as the vehicle for getting to the nuclear option. The chance to keep these two--plus three more, in theory--off the Court of Appeals, along with a sure vote against the nuclear option, is not only a good deal for Democrats, but will represent a definitive defeat for Bush, Frist, and their Cultural Right allies who don't give a damn about the Court of Appeals and who are praying for the opportunity to present GOPers with an all-or-nothing approach to judges. I say this because there will be some Democrats who will argue for rolling the dice on the entire judiciary, either because they think we will win, or because they are just opposed to any compromises with the Republicans on any topic whatsoever. It would be a shame to throw away victory in this fight simply because the word "compromise" is attached to it. The deal reportedly in the works would be a victory, all right, and no one should be criticized for accepting it.

May 15, 2005

The Conservative Movement's Defining Campaign

In reading Garance Franke-Ruta's account of the Tribute to Tom DeLay dinner, which I just posted about, one name among the many attending the event jumped off the page: public-relations flack Craig Shirley, described as a "spokesman" for the dinner.As it happens, I recently read Shirley's January 2005 book, Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. In fact, the next issue of Blueprint magazine will include a review I wrote of that book and the much-better-known Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein's study of the Goldwater campaign.Most non-conservatives looking at Shirley's title will probably assume it's about the 1980 campaign that signalled the conservative movement's conquest of the GOP, and lifted Ronald Reagan to the presidency. But no: the book is about Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 presidential effort, and as Shirley makes abundantly clear, that campaign, not Goldwater's, was the defining moment for the younger wave of conservative activists who are now dominating the GOP and the Bush administration.Unlike Perlstein, Shirley is not a gifted writer or a particularly deep thinker, but he does cover the 1976 Reagan campaign in great detail and with considerable balance, despite his obvious intention to provide a sort of intra-movement scrapbook of the bittersweet moment that marked the transition of latter-day conservatism from noble futility to national power. And his account is replete with the names of minor campaign figures who later emerged as Washington big-timers, such as Haley Barbour, Charlie Black, Martin Anderson, and Ed Meese. Interestingly if not surprisingly, Shirley singles out Dick Cheney, then White House Chief of Staff, as both the most effective operative in Gerald Ford's successful effort to turn back the Reagan drive, and as the one key figure in Ford's circle who understood the conservative movement and its needs and goals.And while Shirley goes well out of his way to refute the revisionist belief of many conservatives that Reagan's 1976 effort was ruined by his non-ideological campaign manager, John Sears, he also makes it clear that the Jesse Helms/Congressional Club zealots saved Reagan's career by designing and managing the Gipper's breakthrough victory in the North Carolina primary, and had the best strategy for prevailing during the Republican Convention.My Perlstein-Shirley review will focus on the dangerous belief of some Democrats that we should emulate the 1964 and 1976 conservative "noble defeats," and one of my arguments is that Reagan's survival in 1976 and his apotheosis in 1980 were far more fortuitous than anyone, including Shirley, seems to be willing to admit.Shirley does concede, and even emphasize, that if Reagan had lost the 1976 nomination early on, he would not have been a candidate in 1980. But he doesn't really address the likelihood that a Reagan nomination in 1976 would have been equally ruinous to the actor's political career, and perhaps to the conservative movement as well. For a whole host of reasons, Reagan would almost certainly have been a weaker candidate than Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter in 1976. And by 1980, almost any Republican could have beaten Carter, given the condition of the country domestically and internationally.There's no telling what a slightly different course of events might have meant for the conservative movement that now, in its maturity or senescence, depending on your point of view, finds itself lionizing Tom DeLay.

Delay's Defiant Dinner

There's been a lot of back-and-forth discussion in the news media and on the blogs about last week's famous Tribute to Tom DeLay event. Some cynics have suggested that this kind of "tribute" is generally a sign that the tributee is about to get thrown to the sharks. But the intrepid Garance Franke-Ruta of The American Prospect did us all a favor by attending the dinner herself and providing a spin-free take on its meaning, and she's quite sure the event represented a gesture of Conservative Movement solidarity with the Hammer, and implicitly a shot across the bow at any Republicans tempted to abandon him.

The Right Case Against Bolton

Now that John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations is heading to the Senate floor, albeit without a positive recommendation from the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrats have a fresh and final chance to make a case against him that doesn't reinforce every GOP-fed stereotype about whiny "global test" liberals whose first concern is to placate "world opinion." I understand the "Mean Man" argument was dictated by Foreign Relations Committee politics, and especially the need to give Republican waverers like Chafee and Voinovich a reason for opposing the nomination that did not involve a broad attack on Bush administration policies. But now, on the floor of the Senate, Democrats need to understand that this debate has implications beyond the question of whether or not Bolton gets his job. As Kenny Baer and I, among others, have argued earlier in this process, Democrats need to make a national security case against Bolton, and fortunately, there is a clear case to be made.I strongly urge everyone interested in the Bolton nomination to read a report by Michael Hirsch and Eve Conant that appeared in Newsweek last week. Through extensive interviews with current and past Bush administration officials, they learned that Bolton completely botched preparations for a critical five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. They also cast new doubts about Bolton's involvement in the one (if inadequate) big advance the administration has made in preventing nuclear terrorism, the Proliferation Security Initiative. In other words, as the point man for what Bush and Cheney have repeatedly called the most important front in the war on terror--the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists--Bolton has done a dangerously lousy job. He's not just a Mean Man--he's a Mean Man blinded by ideology and ambition from promoting the steps we need to take internationally to prevent a nuclear 9/11, or for that matter, a fully nuclear Iran and North Korea. And the question Democrats need to finally start asking on the Senate floor is why this administration has entrusted Bolton with this crucial responsibility, and why it is now insisting on making him our country's most visible representative in world affairs. If that's not enough of an argument to make, then maybe Senate Democrats should also raise a question about U.N. reform that barely got mentioned in the Foreign Relations Committee: does Bolton, and does the Bush administration, support or oppose the Annan Commission recommendation to amend the U.N. Charter to make it clear "sovereignty" does not extend to the right to commit genocide within one's own borders? Given Bolton's much-expressed contempt for risking any U.S. lives or dollars in preventing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or Rwanda, it's a very pertinent question as the debate over Darfur continues.

May 13, 2005

What's Your (Stereo)Type?

To the delight of the chattering classes of Washington, Andy Kohut's fine folks at the Pew Research Center have released a new Political Typology study. It purports to divide the electorate into nine categories, with three each for Democrats, Republicans and "the middle," though it turns out Bush won "middle" voters handily in 2004. Now you have to understand that political junkies love typologies like drunks love cheap whiskey. Why? Well, to be cynical about it, typologies make it easy to sound sophisticated about the deeper currents of political behavior, and the subtle but real differences between voters who in any given election may vote for the same candidate or identify with the same party. Moreover, typologies are often used to identify some hot new "swing" voter category that one party or the other is supposed to pursue or cherish: thus, the famous "soccer moms" of the 1990s and the "NASCAR dads" of more recent vintage.But there's another feature of the new Pew study that's creating some buzz: right there on the site you can answer 25 questions and find out which of the nine categories you supposedly fit into. And that's where I began to lose a lot of confidence in Pew's understanding of the electorate.Question after question, the survey lays out a long series of false choices that you are required to make: military force versus diplomacy; environmental protection versus economic growth; gay people and immigrants and corporations and regulations G-O-O-D or B-A-A-D. Other than agreeing with a proposition mildly rather than strongly, there's no way to register dismay over the boneheaded nature of these choices. For the record, the Typology Test identified me as a "liberal," probably because the only question on which I registered any strong feeling was about the need to treat homosexuality as an acceptable way of life. But I absolutely reject the idea that this test captures much at all of how I actually think about domestic and foreign policy issues, and several people I tend to agree with wound up being tossed into some other category. To be fair, the Typology Test does not include all the questions Pew used in the actual surveys on which the typology depends; the full questionnaire does at least get into more nuanced issues like the budget and tax policy, Iraq, Social Security and so forth. But still, it made me a lot less excited about the prospect of slogging through 119 pages of analysis of "Disadvantaged Democrats," or "Enterprisers" or "Upbeats."So all of you out there in political junkieland, do yourself a favor: before you start enthusing about the strategic implications of the Pew typology, take the test yourself and see if you think it helps identify types, or just stereotypes.

May 12, 2005

The Baptists of East Waynesville

A remarkable amount of media attention has been devoted this week to an incident at a small Southern Baptist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina. That's where a pastor, the Rev. Chan Chandler, known for strident sermons about the religious obligation of Christians to support George W. Bush allegedly tried to expel nine church members who objected to his politicization of the pulpit, and then resigned, apparently leading a group of "young adult" newcomers to the church towards some sort of split-off congregation, presumably to worship according to strict Republican principles.For those of you unfamiliar with the Baptist tradition, congregational and even denominational splits are hardly unusual. Baptists have angrily parted ways over the scripturally prescribed quantity of water to be used in baptismal fonts. Down in North Georgia, the ancestral church of my in-laws split over the issue of admitting divorced persons, with the "conservatives" opening a new church about half-a-mile away. An entire denomination, the Primitive Baptists (which two of my great-grandfathers served as ministers) developed out of an objection to the missionary activities of the Southern Baptists. These are not people who put a high premium on unity, and who traditionally resist any higher authority than the individual congregation communing with the lively Word of God.What's ironic about the outcome of the East Waynesville saga is that the schismatic preacher in question represented the point of view that has gone a long way towards snuffing out that robust sense of Baptist independence.The "conservative" (i.e., biblical literalist and quasi-theocratic) takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that occurred during the 1980s involved a constant guerilla war against the independence of state Baptist Conventions, Baptist seminaries and colleges, and individual congregations. Its centralizing focus was alien to the historic ecclesiology of Baptists, much as its political agenda was alien to the historic devotion of Baptists to the principle of strict separation of church and state.To be sure, most "conservative" Baptist leaders have stopped short of the ultimate religio-political stance of anathemizing every single individual churchgoer who might be inclined to support the heathen Democratic Party, just as some "conservative" Catholic Bishops have so far failed to carry out their threats to deny communion to those who vote for pro-choice Democrats. Time will tell if Chan Chandler is simply a few steps further along the current trajectory of the Baptist wing of the Christian Right, or represents a flashing warning sign to those who have subjected the Gospel to the fortunes of the GOP.

Red State Renaissance?

The Democratic blogosphere has been abuzz this week over a giant batch of polls released by SurveyUSA measuring the approval/disapproval ratings of all 50 Governors (as of May 6-8). So far I haven't seen anyone look at them from the perspective of Democrats in red states, but once you do it really leaps off the page. Here are the numbers for the twelve Democratic Governors of states carried by Bush in 2004, beginning with their ranking among the 50:(3) David Freudenthal WY (67/20)(6) Joe Manchin WV (64/24)(8) Janet Napolitano AZ ((59/32)(10) Brad Henry OK (59/30)(11) Brian Schweitzer MT ((58/27)(12) Kathleen Blanco LA (55/36)(13) Mark Warner VA ((55/31)(16) Kathleen Sebelius KS (54/34)(20) Bill Richardson NM (54/39)(22) Mike Easley NC (52/34)(23) Phil Bredesen TN (52/40)(25) Tom Vilsack IA (50/39)Amazing, huh? All 12 are in the top half of Governors, all have approval ratings of 50 or above, and all have solid approval/disapproval ratios.The other interesting optic I wanted to draw attention to is the ragged popularity of Republican Governors in the South. As regular readers of this blog know, one of my theories about Southern Republicans is that they don't do as well in office as in opposition, which creates perennial opportunities for Southern Democrats even in the toughest terrain. Here are the rankings and numbers for Southern GOPers:(21) Mark Sanford SC (53/35)(24) Mike Huckabee AR (51/41)(28) Jeb Bush FL (49/46)(30) Sonny Perdue GA (47/40)(38) Rick Perry TX (38/48)(40) Haley Barbour MS (37/55)(41) Bob Riley AL (36/52)(43) Ernie Fletcher KY (36/50)If you add in the border state of MO, you also get:(48) Matt Blunt MO (33/57)None of these numbers, of course, guarantee future Democratic success in red states, but things are definitely looking up.UPDATE: For a truly comprehensive analysis of these guberatorial approval ratings, check out a series of posts by Drew Miller, who's president of the College Democrats of Iowa.

May 11, 2005

The Final Descent Into Zell

With the retirement of my old boss Zell Miller, I thought perhaps his outrageous political behavior of the last couple of years would come to an end. I mean, what's the point of insulting your party when nobody really cares any more? Ah, but it now appears the fires of Zell's odd rage still burn: along with Sean Hannity, he will be the featured speaker at a fundraiser for none other than Ralph Reed, candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, and the past master of hypocritical political sleaze.There is, of course, a peculiar historical echo here: Ralph's very first campaign, before he got religion, and before his notorious stint as deputy to Jack Abramoff in the College Republicans, was with Zell Miller's unsuccessful 1980 race for the U.S. Senate. Miller lost the Democratic runoff to incumbent Herman Talmadge, who basically beat Miller by calling him too liberal for Georgia. Ironic, huh?Ralph was no more than a little pissant in that Miller campaign, so I doubt this is a matter of discharging some ancient debt. No, Zell's determined to play out his rightward tangent to such an extreme that absolutely everyone will forget that he was ever a fine, progressive Democratic Governor. He rationalized his endorsement of Bush last year as a patriotic act of gratitude for W.'s national security leadership; that's ostensibly why his role at the Republican Convention was focused on swift-boating John Kerry's defense record. Last time I checked, Ralph Reed's national security resume was pretty much limited to the campaign of calumny against war hero Max Cleland that he orchestrated in 2002. When I worked for Zell, I often walked by a statue of the great populist Tom Watson on the State Capitol grounds. As the historically minded among you may know, Watson capped his career with a long descent into bitter right-wing demagoguery. Zell Miller seems to be following the same trajectory, even in retirement.

May 10, 2005

Still Here, Still Making Sense

Over at &c, the New Republic's blog, Reihan Salam, who's sitting in for Noam Scheiber, did a post today that I obviously can't leave alone. Under the title, "Where Have You Gone, New Democrats?", Salam cites one of those perennial Nation obituaries for the DLC (they've been publishing them for twenty years), and then mourns at our grave since it would be nice if somebody in the Democratic camp had a strategy for dealing with the plight of low-income workers that's a little broader and a lot more effective than pushing for "living wage" ordinances or demonizing Wal-Mart.The timing of this lament was interesting, insofar as my colleague The Moose, in his DLC-sponsored blog, made a similar case against Wal-Mart-o-phobia yesterday morning. And less than a month ago, our think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute published a well-regarded tax reform proposal by Paul Weinstein that included a super-charged version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the longstanding New Democrat alternative to exclusive reliance on minimum wages as a strategy for supporting low-income working families.Salam refers to the New Democrat argument for a "win-win" society where wage subsidies are part of a national strategy to make our economy more competitive as though it were a relic of the distant past. Actually, the same argument can be found in virtually every issue of Blueprint magazine over the last three years, and more importantly, in the policy speeches of nearly every major Democratic candidate for president in 2004 (not to mention Tony Blair, who long ago adopted the DLC slogan of "expanding the winners' circle"). "What we need is a national commitment to those who 'work hard and play by the rules,'" says Salam. That message was, in fact, the centerpiece of John Edwards' entire presidential campaign, in no small part because he completely incorporated the New Democratic approach to this issue. And the Kerry campaign pretty much adopted this approach after Edwards went on the ticket. Sure, the candidates should have talked about it a lot more, but they sure weren't out there promoting "living wage" ordinances or other purely employer-based strategies for helping the working poor.The bottom line is that we New Democrats are still around, and still promoting ideas that pursue progressive goals in ways that make sense in the real world of politics and policy.I suggest that Reihan spend less time on the Nation's site, and more time at ours, and other New Dem sites, like NDN and Third Way, if he wants to feel less lonely.

May 9, 2005


As some of you may recall, the central premise of JFK, Jr.'s magazine George, that great curiosity of 1990s political journalism, was that cool young people could only become interested in the uncool topic of politics if the subject was addressed through the eyes and voices of popular culture celebrities. And there was, to be fair, a genuine earnestness to Kennedy's endeavor which tempered the horror people like me experienced during every exposure to George's Let's-Learn-Civics-From-Supermodels modus operandi.Mixing celebrities with political journalism is one thing. But now, the same idea has invaded the quintessentially uncool arena of the blogosphere, and I must ask: Is nothing sacred?I am speaking of Arianna Huffington's mammoth new group blog posted on her new Drudge o' the Left site, the Huffington Post.There's no question at all that Arianna is the perfectly appropriate impresario for the advent of Celebrity Blogging, since she has never shown any notable comprehension that political opinion is about anything other than self-promotional shouting gussied up with generic Mediterranean glamor. And indeed, it's not clear from what's she said about the new blog that she realizes her responsibility for ushering in a rough and unnatural beast that may signal the Last Days. According to Howard Kurtz's column in the WaPo today, it sounds like La Huffington thinks she's performing a sort of public service for Famous People:

"The great thing about blogging is that your thoughts don't have to have a beginning, middle and end," says Huffington, arguing that famous people are usually too busy to craft an op-ed piece. "You can just put a thought out there in the cultural bloodstream."

Gee, what a great compliment to all us bloggers: our medium fosters the kind of incoherent rambling that Hollywood types can toss off between drinks, between photo shoots, or between divorces. The New York Times Op-Ed page's loss is our gain.

I couldn't bear to stay on her site long enough to discover the full range of celebrity bloggers she's enlisted. Kurtz mentions Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Geffen, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Bill Maher, Larry David, David Mamet, Normal Lear, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin. They are, at least by reputation, a fairly cerebral bunch when it comes to their own craft. But anyone who's familiar with the long, sad history of artists and intellectuals who embrace stupid and sometimes evil political causes of both the Right and the Left knows that the ability to write, direct or perform a witty screenplay is often associated with the most tedious and tendentious political views.

Huffington's initial posts show she is not limiting her blog to Hollywood celebrities; non-Hollywood celebrities (e.g., Walter Cronkite, Arthur Schlesinger) have been invited to the dinner party as well. Moreover, she's coralled a few legitimate political journalists like David Corn of The Nation, and Byron York of National Review, who's presumably an acquaintance from the days before Arianna effortlessly shifted her allegiance from the orthodoxy of the Far Right to that of the Far Left.

But this diversity worries me even more. Will non-celebrities in the midst of all this glitter be seduced and drawn into the preening world of their new blogging friends? Can we expect David Sirota to do an ironic turn on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm?

On behalf of all us unglamorous bloggers toiling away in our basements each night, I think it's time to draw a line in the sand, and embrace our non-celebrity as a Basic Value. We are not cool. Our idea of a chic cocktail party is a vicious argument about the bankruptcy bill at a cash bar in some shabby hotel conference room. We jet-set in the center seats of AirTran, and do not often fly over flyover country. We are the Punks of Punditry.

Yes, the blogosphere is open to all, even to celebrities, but I hope Arrianna's venture is not as popular as I fear it will be. The pretty people of Hollywood already dominate so much of our culture; they should generally limit their political involvement to writing checks and waving from the wings at candidate rallies. If they are interested in blogging, let them create a Blogger's Relief Fund or at least hire some ghost-bloggers to post for them.

Now that would be cool.


May 5, 2005

British Exits

Well, having done earlier posts suggesting that Labour might actually lose, and that Labour might be headed for a landslide, I guess I'm not surprised to learn that the exit polls show something in between: a Labour majority, but reduced from 161 seats to 66. In terms of the popular vote, the exits have Labour at 37 percent, the Tories at 33 percent, and the Lib Dems at 21 percent. While the Labour and LibDem percentages are exactly what the final polls suggested, the Tories did about 6 points better. More importantly, a Tory strategy of focusing most of their resources on marginal seats seems to have paid off, since they seem to be winning a much bigger chunk of the lost Labour seats than the LibDems.But in a campaign full of surprises (despite much voter apathy), we'll have to wait for the final numbers to see what really happened.

May 4, 2005

Tory Collapse?

With the British elections just a few hours away now, the final polls indicate that Tony Blair and Labour are headed for a third term, as late deciders break towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A Populus poll for the Times of London has the Tories dropping to 27 percent, with Labour at 37 percent and the Lib Dems at 21 percent. In other words, the Tories are again showing that they are not an effective opposition party, even with marginally better leadership than they had in the last two elections.If the polls are accurate, Labour could come out of this election maintaining a better than 100 seat majority in the House of Commons, despite Blair's personal unpopularity and much voter angst over Iraq. It's been a while since any national election pretty much anywhere has given me much reason to smile, so I'm looking foward to tomorrow.

May 3, 2005

Taken by "Storm"

I've finally gotten around to reading a book that's been much-discussed in the blogosphere: Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, an account of the Goldwater campaign of 1964. I'm doing a review of the book for Blueprint magazine (in tandem with Craig Shirley's recent history of the 1976 Reagan campaign), but wanted to offer a couple of observations that are largely outside the ambit of the review.First of all, Perlstein is a truly gifted writer and historian. I didn't read the book when it first came out, exercising the kind of literary triage that old folks like me implicitly apply. I know a fair amount about the 1964 campaign, and the roots of the conservative movement; there are many avenues of political history that I've never trod at all. So I'm more likely to pick up a book about Martin Van Buren than about Barry Goldwater, and I initially assumed the enthusiasm for Perlstein's book among Kid Bloggers represented an exposure to an episode of history as alien to them as the 1836 campaign is alien to me.But man, this guy can really write. To cite just one example, he takes an obscure moment of Republican political history, the Fifth Avenue Compact of 1960 in which Nelson Rockefeller imposed his will on GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and turns it into a stunning metaphor for every cultural cleavage in the GOP from Tom Dewey to Tom DeLay. I'd pay full list price for the book just to read that brief section.The second thing that surprised me about Before the Storm is that Perlstein does not make the argument that his book has often been used to advance: that the Goldwater campaign, and the conservative movement it brought to visible prominence, is some sort of template for the contemporary Left.Certainly Perlstein is a Man of the Left; he is a contributor to The Nation. Moreover, in the book's Preface, he fully embraces the Nation-esque view that most recent political history, in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party, represents the triumph of the conservative movement. Obviously, the book was published in 2001, well before the Dean/Netroots insurgency that is now beginning to style itself after the conservative movement. But I'm sure Perlstein understands the seductive power of the Goldwater analogy for Deaniac activists who must struggle with the electoral rejection of their flawed-but-inspiring candidate, who, like Moses, has shown the way to a Promised Land he can never enter.Maybe Perlstein has written about this analogy somewhere, or may write about it in the future, but one of his book's virtues is that he does not generally impose any revisionist view on the story he tells so well. You get the sense as he writes that he's still absorbing the story himself, and expects the reader to do likewise. That's the last of many reasons why I recommend Before the Storm to anybody interested in American politics or history.

May 2, 2005

Why Budget Reform Matters

Guest-blogging for Josh Marshall yesterday, Matt Yglesias gave me a shout-out for predicting several months ago that the administration's proposal for limits on farm subsidy payments would get transmogrified by Congress into food stamp cuts. I wish this meant I was some kind of analytical wizard, but frankly, this development was all too predictable, not just because conservative Republicans love wealthy farmers more than po' folks, but because the congressional budget process promotes precisely this kind of trade-off. If you are interested in this line of reasoning, and why progressives should embrace the kind of serious budget reforms that make it possible to establish national priorities beyond the cramped and parochial interests of congressional committee and subcommittee barons, check out my earlier post on the subject.Meanwhile, I am wondering more than ever if my other big prediction, that GOPers would eventually segue from Social Security privatization to a proposal for "tax reform" allowing high earners to shelter most of their investment income, will come true now that Bush's SocSec campaign is way off in the high weeds.

There For the Taking

There's a blizzard of public opinion research making its way into publication that consistently makes one big point: growing majorities of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction (or, to use the train metaphor which a whole generation of pollsters has conspired to impose on us, America is on "the wrong track"). George W. Bush's approval ratings have dropped to their pre-9/11 level, while his main priorities, especially Social Security privatization, are more unpopular every day. And the Republican Party and the Republican Congress are getting down there into the dangerous territory of being perceived as a menace to the country. But--Democrats are not yet benefitting from this wreckage. And it's not too hard to understand why: for (largely) sound tactical reasons, they are focused on opposing the GOP agenda rather than projecting any positive agenda of their own. But that can't go on forever. Negative perceptions of the Democratic Party on security, the role of government, and (to a lesser extent now that the GOP is lurching off the right-wing edge) culture have not gone away.How and on what set of issues should Democrats begin their crucial pivot to a positive alternative message and agenda? Regular readers probably know my answer to that one: we need a Reform message and agenda that (a) meshes with our negative critique of GOP misrule; (b) reminds voters who's in charge in Washington; and (c) reassures voters we aren't just itching to get back into power and substitute our form of special-interest pandering and fiscal indiscipline for theirs. As it happens, James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps agree with this argument, and in their latest strategy memo, lay out the evidence for it. A Democratic agenda that includes budget reform, lobbying reform, ethics reform, and tax reform, they say, could begin to connect the dots for voters skeptical of both parties and help Democrats finally get some tangible benefits from Republican misery. Will Democrats listen? There's no inherent reason they shouldn't. Most elements of the Reform agenda laid out by Democracy Corps (and earlier, by the DLC) don't create any ideological divisions in the party, and are fully consistent with what Democrats want to say on other issues ranging from the economy to national security. The main opposition to a Reform message and agenda, so far as I can tell, is from political pros who learned in early childhood that these are boring "process issues" that don't change voting behavior. That's why it's so helpful to hear otherwise from guys like Carville and Greenberg, who would probably make the case for an agenda centered on the Divine Right of Kings if they thought it would help Democrats win the next election.There's a large segment of the American public right now that's waiting for an alternative to Bush and the GOP, and is there for the taking for Democrats if they can walk and chew gum at the same time by combining opposition to Republican misgovernment with some clear evidence they could do better.

May 1, 2005

Tories Can't Win; Can Labour Lose?

Britain's general election is just four days away, and polls are showing a tightening race wherein Labour has a very small lead among likely voters. For complicated reasons involving party vote concentrations, Labour could lose the popular vote and maintain control of the House of Commons and hence the government, albeit with a greatly reduced majority. But Tony Blair himself, fighting a combination of Labour complacency and a threat on the Left to punish him by casting protest votes for the Liberal Democrats, is raising the specter of a Tory upset victory like that of 1970.There's not much doubt that British voters generally endorse the direction of New Labour's stewardship of the country, and reject the Tory message, which increasingly revolves around a backlash against Asian (and largely Muslim) immigration. But incumbency fatigue and lingering hostility to Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq (aggravated by last-minute press reports that Blair failed to release a full report from his attorney general assessing the legality of the Iraq invasion) are giving Labour a great deal of stretch-drive heartburn.In other words, the Tories cannot win this election, but it's possible Labour could lose--if not the govenment, then an effective majority. And that's why the final days of the campaign will largely revolve around Labour efforts to boost turnout, savage the LibDems, and let voters know a decision to protest this or that aspect of Blair's record could produce a government they don't want.

Crescent City Post Card

I'm blogging today and for most of the next week from my favorite city, New Orleans. It's a beautiful day here, the last day of JazzFest, which in terms of its impact on the city is sort of Mardi Gras Lite. For me, that means I will finally be able to get into my favorite restaurants without waiting for hours (last night at Praline Connection we were served our first bite of soul food as the clock struck midnight). It also means I'll have time to catch up on last week's political developments, including the Carl Hubbell screwball George W. Bush delivered on Social Security, and this week's U.K. elections. Despite the general pre-modern ambiance of New Orleans, and its delightfully non-Washingtonian antipathy to workaholism, WiFi is becoming widely available, so I will not have to crouch in a cubicle at Kinko's or rely on AOL dial-up to deliver pithy thoughts on a regular basis. I'm old enough to remember quite a few semi-vacations when I found myself dictating speech copy over a pay phone from late night scratchings on a yellow legal pad, much as New Orleans' favorite fictional character, Ignatius Reilly, condensed his twisted observations on Big Chief writing tablets. So even here progress marches on--but praise God, not too much.