Water Man Spouts

Monday, March 16, 2009

Four Essential Human Freedoms

In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt identified what he called the "four essential human freedoms." He knew that these were necessary for the citizens of this country to enjoy in the rights that define a Constitutional democracy The four essential freedoms are:

--Freedom of speech and expression;
--Freedom of religion;
--Freedom from want; and
--Freedom from fear.

FDR knew that these rights were worth fighting to protect, and that any force that threatened these rights was a threat to our nation’s security and well-being.. These were things worth fighting for. And just as they were in 1941, they are in 2009.

We know that the Bush-Cheney administration was prepared to "suspend" Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights, which provides for freedom of speech and expression.

We know that the Bush-Cheney administration pursued a foreign policy that was based, in very large part, upon the religious beliefs of a segment of their pals. Bush was so vain as to say that he believed that God had placed him in the presidency for a divine purpose. Thousands of human beings have died or suffered serious injuries as a result.

The economic crisis that our nation faces today makes it so millions of citizens live in want, and millions more live in fear.

If a foreign entity attempted to inflict the amount of damage that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did in the past eight years on our country, we would recognize the need to go to war to defend our nation. But the greatest threats to our country are never from the outside. The greatest danger comes from within.

In discussing this very topic, President Lincoln states, "At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

In recent weeks, I have been contacted by representatives of groups and individuals asking for contributions for democrats in Washington, who are preparing to face re-election challenges in 2010. I am certainly in favor of supporting the efforts to elect and re-elect democrats to office. But I am no longer willing to donate – either time or money – to help those who are unwilling to hold Bush and Cheney responsible for the crimes they committed in office. I appreciate that others may not feel the same way; this is fine, they can contribute to whomever they please. I understand that there are a variety of other urgent issues that have to be addressed. But having those who posed a threat to our nation held responsible for their actions seems to me to be an important part of fighting to protect the four essential human freedoms.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Gutter Age

"Why the matter is simple enough. A Congressional appropriation costs money. Just reflect, for instance. A majority of the House committee, say $10,000 apiece -- $40,000; a majority of the Senate committee, the same each -- $40,000; a little extra for one or two chairmen of one or two such committees, say $10,000 each, $20,000; and there’s $100,000 of the money gone, to begin with. Then, seven male lobbyists, at $3,000 each -- $21,000; one female lobbyist, $3,000; a high moral Congressman or Senator here and there – the high moral ones cost more, because they give tone to a measure …..well, never mind the details, the total in clean numbers foots up $118,254.42 thus far!"
--Mark Twain; The Gilded Age

Yesterday, the issue of political corruption was in the forefront of televised discussions. Rod Blagojevich, recently impeached and now facing charges related to reportedly attempting to "sell" a US Senate seat, appeared on the Letterman and Larry King shows, attempting to convince the public that he will be proven innocent.

Former Senator Tom Daschle removed himself from consideration for heading the department of Health and Human Services, when it was revealed that he had to pay $128, 203 in "back taxes," along with $11,964 in interest.

There are supporters of both men who believe that they are being singled out for doing things that may other politicians do. And certainly, there is something disturbing about those who have committed far more serious crimes – George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are but two examples – avoiding legal consequence.

I found myself thinking of one of Mark Twain’s wonderful books. The era after the Civil War would become known as "The Gilded Age," after his story of political corruption. The previous era, now fondly remembered as "The Golden Age," had been a time of kinder and gentler corruption. It is still possible to think of this period in entirely positive terms, so long as one does not allow some college professor with a chip on his or her shoulder to tarnish it with subversive talk about slaves, Indians, women, and poor folk.

After the Civil War, however, federal politicians began to play a more active role in the world of economics. And when there was money to be made, as Twain noted, many politicians became invested in bribery, favoritism, inefficiency, and waste. A new group of powerful individuals and families, known as the "robber barons," became the engineers of the national political-economic agenda.

This agenda involved "how the West was won." We often think of the 1862 Homestead Act, which allowed private citizens title to 160 acres of Indian land, for a small registration fee. But the West was not "won" by hardy pioneers in covered wagons; manifest destiny rode the rails. Between 1865 and 1900, politicians gave the railroad robber barons about a quarter of a million square acres of land – which is more than the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin combined. And the "registration fee" was paid by the common man.

I suspect that the present era qualifies as "The Gutter Age." While some may think it began with Richard Nixon’s resigning in disgrace as a result of the series of crimes known as Watergate, I’m not so sure. Nixon and other politicians who have faced consequences for their crimes and abuses of the power of their office have merely passed the line of acceptability that the others have set. They have been sacrificed to both satisfy the general public, and to ease the consciences of other corrupt politicians.

The Gutter Age began, in my opinion, on the day that Gerald Ford left the Oval Office. Thomas DeFrank’s recent book on Ford – and DeFrank was friends with him – details the controversial manner in which Gerald Ford prostituted his position as ex-President for financial gain.

Ford was already a multi-millionaire before leaving office, DeFrank notes, and he kept his business dealings low-key until 1980, in case he could become the republican candidate to challenge President Jimmy Carter. But, after that opportunity failed to arise, Ford began to serve the business community. In 1981, Newsweek ran a feature article, "Jerry Ford Incorporated," which detailed his ties to banking, oil, mining, and other interests. His annual aircraft/traveling expenses alone cost over a million dollars. And all of this was separate from his "speaking fees," a not uncommon practice among retired politicians.

Ford, DeFrank writes, was deeply offended by the Newsweek article. But he was outraged when Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all expressed disapproval of his prostituting the presidency. His self-righteousness, in my opinion, marks the threshold for The Gutter Age.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


{A} "Without justice, there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it."
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the most important issues that will face the Obama administration will be how it approaches the questions regarding the alleged crimes committed by members of the Bush administration. This appears to involve members of the Department of Justice, as well as both VP Cheney and President Bush himself.

The legal issues involved have been discussed on such programs as MSNBC’s Countdown and Rachel Maddow Show. There have also been interesting discussions on political web sites, including the Democratic Underground. In those discussions, it has been noted that investigations and possible trials could divide the country. Indeed, there appears to be a divide within the democratic party, between the progressive/liberal wing, which favors pursuing legal action, and the moderate/conservative wing, which opposes such actions.

One of the fascinating aspects, in my opinion, is that members of the moderate/conservative wing have attempted to use the examples of Gandhi and King to support their claims that people need to "forgive and move forward." Looking to Gandhi and King’s teachings is a good thing; both men called upon the best within individuals in order to heal the worst within society. Let’s take a closer look.

{B} "Goodness must be joined with knowledge. Mere goodness is not of much use, as I have found in life. One must cultivate the fine discriminating quality which goes with spiritual courage and character."
--Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi was many things: a barrister by trade, a political activist, an economic socialist, and a religious leader among them. Although he is most commonly remembered for his role in the larger social events in India, it may be useful to focus here on some of his teachings for individuals.

Gandhi recognized that a key to unlocking what he called the love force came by way of forgiveness. A wonderful study of this part of Gandhi’s message is found in Thomas Merton’s 1964 book, "Gandhi on Non-Violence." In it, Merton notes that one of the major stumbling blocks to social justice is found in people’s rigid belief systems, which too often hold that "sins" or crimes are unforgivable. He explains how, for example, Hitler believed that certain "sins" could never be forgiven; and surely Hitler stands as the opposite in human potential from Gandhi.

The inability to forgive is closely associated on an individual level with the desire for revenge. This desire for revenge is at the root of the numerous "blood feuds" that we see in places such as the Middle East today, and which surely are the cause of many of the most horrible injustices found in human society. More, the inability to forgive others translates into an inability to forgive one’s self, and in this sense, it definitely prevents the individual from "moving forward."

Yet this should not be taken as Gandhi’s endorsing individuals not taking personal responsibility for their actions. The transformation of the individual, and of society, demands that people do take responsibility. The combination of taking responsibility and forgiveness is necessary to make the parts that are fractured by "sins" and crimes whole.

More, Gandhi spoke harshly about those who fail to take actions (to "do the right thing") because of cowardice. (See Merton, page 36) The failure to take actions for social justice, because one feels the "odds are against them," which simply means they are afraid to risk failing, should never be confused with Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy. It never results in society moving forward. The obvious example in this context would be the failure of democrats in Congress to move to impeach President Bush and VP Cheney, a move that progressive and liberal democrats at the grass roots level recognized could help to end the administration’s violent foreign policy, and anti-Constitutional domestic policy.

{C} "We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence."
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

The above quote is taken from King’s eulogy for the four girls who were killed by a bomb while attending Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, on September 15, 1963. When he said that people should not become bitter, nor seek to retaliate violently, he was speaking on an individual and group level. Yet he was not attempting to promote the idea that the matter should be dropped when those four coffins were placed in the ground. He did not intend to say that people should simply forgive the murderers, and move forward.

When King was participating in the civil rights struggle, he was advocating justice. He recognized the differences between what he called just laws and unjust laws, and he was willing to be incarcerated for violating unjust laws to promote his cause. He also spent a considerable amount of time and energy in lobbying three administrations for proper law enforcement to protect black citizens, and to insure their Constitutional rights. He recognized that just laws, properly enforced, helped to promote social justice.

{D} "The future will depend on what we do in the present."

The Obama administration should conduct investigations into the possible criminal actions that resulted in torture, suffering and deaths, and violations of the Constitution. If the Department of Justice finds evidence – and it certainly appears clear that they will if they look – then they should prosecute those who violated the law. This should be done not out of bitterness, nor a desire for revenge, but rather for the sake of justice. It is only possible to move forward to a more peaceful future if we insure justice today.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Leon Panetta & the DCI

The report that Leon Panetta will serve as the Director of the CIA in the Obama administration is getting a lot of attention in Washington, DC, and in the national news media. It is interesting to view this within the larger context of the controversies involving who gets to take positions of power in our country, either by elections or appointments. Considering that the current White House occupant was appointed in the face of having lost the 2000 presidential election, current events should come as little surprise. Will the Senate seat Roland Burris? Who will NY Governor Patterson appoint? And how far will the machine go to deny Al Franken the victory that he has won?

In Panetta’s case, I am reminded of when newly elected President Jimmy Carter attempted to appoint Ted Sorensen to serve as the CIA’s director in 1977. A full story of those events can be found in Sorensen’s 2008 book, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History." (See chapter 33, "My 1977 Nomination for Director of Central Intelligence") This came at a time shortly after the disgraced Nixon administration had been removed from power, and Gerald Ford had become VP then President without having been elected to either office.

At the time, there were divisions within the democratic party. Those divisions led to Soresen’s not being able to serve as DCI. Looking back, it is disappointing to see those democrats who undercut Sorensen.

Like Sorensen, Leon Panetta has a long history of service in Washington. Also, he is being selected to serve as a manager of an agency that has experienced a troubling role in the scandals associated with a corrupt republican administration. And like Sorensen, Panetta may face some serious opposition from the democrats in Washington who should be supporting the newly elected President’s choice.

While the media focuses on Panetta’s reported lack of experience in intelligence matters (a claim that does not hold up under close examination), and the talking heads discuss their thoughts on if President Obama should have kept on the current Bush appointee, the truth lies elsewhere. There has been an effort by a faction of Washington democrats to get Obama to appoint Jane Harmen as DCI.

Harmen does have experience with intelligence matters, relating to her service in the House of Representatives. For example, she serves on the Committee on Homeland Security. In that position, she offered to do the legal research she believed would support VP Cheney’s most questionable, secret activities ( see pages 301-302 of Barton Gellman’s 2008 book "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency"). In 2007, she submitted a resolution that proposed to set restrictions on free speech and beliefs within the United States.

Panetta has spoken out strongly against the types of practices, such as torture, that Harmen and Cheney embrace. I believe that he is a good choice for DCI at this time. It should be interesting to see if his appointment is confirmed.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lessons from 2008

"The New Left has tried to create a sense of revolution in the nation by shouting slogans and marching up and down the streets. But when the hated establishment is left secure in its citadel, certain that it cannot be dislodged, then it has very little reason to pat attention to them and maintains the power to suppress them. The New Left should use the system to create uncertainty in the minds of Congressmen it dislikes so that all would tend to change lest lightning strike them in their next election.

"In a comparable manner the executive branch of the government could be easily changed if sufficient pressure were applied to it through proper channels. When we speak of America as a democracy, we often fool ourselves. While we vote for our Senators, Congressmen, and Governors, we do not get a chance to vote for the multitude of civil servants which they are able to appoint. Thus the majority of people in the system are placed there without citizen approval.

"That fact should not cause people to give up on the system. Simply because a man is appointed to a position, or through the drudgery of years has followed the Peter Principle and risen to his level of incompetence, does not mean he is immortal. There has never been a system yet that would not gladly sacrifice one of its own for a moment’s peace, no matter how brief. If the system is to be changed, then those who would change it should pinpoint its weak spot, its blockage points, and place all the pressure on that one point until the blockage is cleared. …..

"Every system has certain procedures by which it regulates its internal life. Each system is based upon the mathematical assumption that a certain problem can occur only so often, and therefore only a certain amount of staff is needed to keep the total operation working. Martin Luther King, Jr., used this weakness of the system to great advantage in his demonstrations. ….. It must be remembered that, in an electric world, systems are virtually helpless against sudden and well conceived movements. But continual hammering on one point, using one type of tactic, soon brings across the message of conflict to society, and society reacts in an oppressive fashion, thinking that by crushing this one attack it can save itself. The present techniques used by the New Left are childish and as insignificant as the old Indian charges at the wagon trains – and about as effective. Since Indians have learned new and flexible techniques after being driven off from the wagon train time after time, it would seem that others could learn also."
--Vine Deloria, Jr.; We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf; 1970; pages 65-69.

The election of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, along with democratic gains in the House and Senate, represent a significant step forward for the progressive/liberal wing of the democratic party. The election results do not, however, translate into a solution to the many problems that we are confronted with. Rather, the election results provide us with new opportunities to take actions and advocate for the "system" to make those changes that we know are necessary into reality.

Between now and the day that Barack Obama takes the oath of office, we are afforded an opportunity to do two extremely important things: first, to review the important lessons of the 2008 elections; and second, to consider our options for applying them in 2009. For we do not have the luxury of sitting back, either now or in 2009, with a false sense of confidence that everything is going to be okay.

When I was in school, we had a machine called an "overhead projector," which allowed us to view overlapping graphs and charts. It would come in handy in allowing us to see how Vine Deloria’s information overlaps with the simple "graph" that is most effective for understanding how elections are best run and won. As I’ve said many times in the past six months, there are always three groups: a- those who support you; b- those who oppose you; and c- the undecided voters.
During 2008, the republicans believed that their best opportunity was to apply maximum pressure in an attempt to divide the democratic Group A, starting in the primaries. This took the form of trying to divide those who supported our two strongest candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This effort failed, because democrats were able to concentrate on supporting principles rather than personalities.

This republican effort not only failed, it backfired: the republican party’s Group A became frayed at its seams when they focused on personality rather than principles. After claiming the democrats had nominated a "celebrity" who lacked the experience necessary to lead the country, they banked the McCain campaign on the choice of Sarah Palin as VP. It is impossible to identify a single nominee who defined a "celebrity" lacking in experience or insight than Sarah Palin. More, their candidates were incapable of separating themselves from the failed principles and policies of the Bush-Cheney administration. The result was not only the loses they suffered on Election Day: we are witnessing the fracturing of the groups that were previously unified in the republican front.

Yet being fractured does not necessarily make them less dangerous. Several of the sub-groups within the republican party continues to pose threats to our Constitutional democracy, even if the specific threats have changed. The radical religious right, for example, is still over-represented in many areas, from school boards and other "local" positions, on up the ladder. And, despite the current economic crisis, the corporate interests that run the energy and insurance corporations still have a dangerous level of political power.

It might feel good to say that we must eliminate corporate influence in government, but the fact is that government is a corporation. The local, state, and federal governments are small to large businesses. One of the most impressive things about the Obama campaign was how it operated financially: it was a multi-million dollar industry, that blended the small, grass roots cottage industries with the large, national business.

The McCain campaign attacked Obama for his past efforts at community organizing. This wasn’t a meaningless attempt to discredit him. It was because the republican industrial machine recognized the potential strength of community organizing. The local cottage industries that found political strength in shared values was the essential building block for the democratic victories in the presidential and congressional races.

We are in a position where we can use these same cottage industries to organize within our local communities, and change the make up of our school boards, and our village/town/city/county governments. Today, progressive and liberal democrats are as under-represented in these areas, as radical right-wing republicans are over-represented. We need to change that. We have the opportunity to harness political power now in a manner that will not present itself again, should we fail to strike while the iron is hot.

This is why the Obama transitional team is talking about, when they say that they are bringing new people into government. It is not only those who will serve in the Obama administration: like with JFK, President Obama will again call upon the best and the brightest to see government service as an honorable thing. This includes those at the community level.

The republican machine recognizes that potential. It is the reason why they have attempted to smear Obama as a radical democrat – the "most liberal Senator" bit they have whined about. It is no coincidence that a young Barack Obama was a community organizer. They know what an Obama presidency can mean in terms of community organizing.

Finally, we must continue to be aware that we did not "win" on all levels, nor will our every effort meet with instant results. The federal government, in particular, will not be able to make progress in all areas on its own. Nor will our exercising power in local and state politics provide the solutions to each problem. We will need to focus a significant amount of energy in non-governmental "industries," ranging from established groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to the Center for Constitutional Rights. More, we will need to study and apply the methods of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the hundreds of other lesser-known civil rights leaders, in order to bring about the changes we need to make as a people.

Thank you,
H2O Man

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Living History

"I have an abiding faith in America, and an audacious faith in the future of mankind."
--Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Oslo University

Last night, my daughters and I went to the Grand Opening of the Chenango County Democratic Headquarters in Norwich, NY. On the ride, I told them the story of when one of my cousins ran the Democratic Headquarters there in 1960, and campaigned for Senator John F. Kennedy. My cousin, who drove for over 60 years, would get the only tickets he ever was issued in the month he drove to Norwich to run the office. In my book on the cultural influences made by the Irish immigrants in upstate New York, I wrote that my cousin got three tickets; he and his wife corrected me: it was five. And along with each of those tickets, the local police issued a warning – "we don’t like your kind here." (I have an image of them calling him "that one" when they talked about this Irish-American agitator.)

My daughters are 11 and 14 years of age. For many youngsters their age, talk of the 1960 election may seem like ancient history. But for my daughters, who know my cousin as one of the oldest relatives who attends our family reunions, and visits our home to talk about politics, it provided a direct connection to the event that we were going to attend.

We talked about how things have changed in my lifetime. Many of the top elected officials in Chenango County’s judicial system are Irish-Americans, and members of those two girls’ extended family. This is a result of the positive changes that democrats like my cousin was working for in 1960, and which we continue to work for today.

48 years ago, there were questions about if an Irish Catholic could be elected President of the United States. This year, the questions have included which candidate the Democratic Party would nominate: a black man or a white women? Our party is participating in an important chapter in our nation’s history, and is going to deliver some of that promise that John and Robert Kennedy offered the country, but which was stolen from us. I’m glad that the change is going to come in my children’s lifetime.

At the Grand Opening, we mingled with a crowd that included old-time democratic activists, who have patiently worked for our party during the often bleak years that included Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Cheney administrations. There were old friends who I had done voter education/registration for Bill Clinton’s presidential and Hillary Clinton’s senate campaigns. And, in something that was very meaningful to me, there were friends from the local progressive left, who are not registered democrats, but who are uniting with us on several key campaigns.

We had the opportunity to talk with a couple of area politicians, including Congressman Michael Arcuri and Don Barber, who is running for the NYS Senate. These are the types of politicians that we need to elect and re-elect this year, in order to insure the progress that the Obama-Biden ticket promises the people in the hamlets, towns and cities across the country.

Don Barber, who lives on his "family farm," has received national attention, due to his extraordinary fund-raising ability in the rural, republican upstate farm country. His opponent is a lap dog for the insurance industry, who has no regard for the environment. Thus, while all of Don’s contributions are from the "grass roots," he is gaining the support of everyone from the progressive left to moderate republicans.

These are interesting times. As Election Day draws nearer, the pace is picking up. Still, in times like these, it is important to take the time to appreciate that we are living – and participating – in an important chapter of our nation’s history.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why the VP Debate Matters

{1} "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’." – Daniel Quayle.

The debate between Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin promises to be the single most important in our nation’s history. In the past, the Office of the Vice President was considered a relatively bland position to hold. In more recent times, presidential candidates tended to select a VP who was considered competent, and who offered the ticket an advantage in gaining geo-political support on election day.

There have been examples of relatively weak choices of VP candidates on a number of failed tickets in recent history. And Dan Quayle provides an example of an unqualified lightweight actually serving as vice president. Quayle was considered a ball & chain on Bush the Elder by many republicans in 1992, and there was a serious, though quiet, attempt to get Bush to replace him.

Since VP Richard Nixon ran the US intelligence operations in Central and South America during the Eisenhower administration, the OVP has often included an expansion of power. Both Al Gore and Dick Cheney are examples of vice presidents who played significant roles in the past 16 years. It is in this context that we can best examine what is at stake in tomorrow’s debate.

{2} "When I talked to him on the phone yesterday, I called him George rather than Mr. Vice President. But, in public, it’s Mr. Vice President, because that is who he is." – Daniel Quayle.

The focus on the importance of the potential selection of a vice president began with the democratic primaries. Early on, Senator Hillary Clinton was heavily favored to win the nomination, and people from both parties wondered if she would pick Barack Obama as her VP. By the spring of 2008, the contest between Clinton and Obama had changed some perceptions: many democrats hoped for a "unity ticket" that included both candidates, while republicans hoped that Clinton and Obama would destroy one another.

As the democratic nominee, Barack Obama selected Joseph Biden as his running mate. That choice inevitably led to speculation as to whether Obama should have chosen Senator Clinton. While there has been a lot of talk about the dynamics within the democratic party, one thing is clear: the party had several strong, competent candidates for VP.

{3} "I’m going to be a vice president very much like George Bush was. He proved to be a very effective vice president, perhaps the most effective we’ve had in a couple of hundred years." – Daniel Quayle.

When John McCain became the republican nominee, there was a great deal of interest in who he would pick as his running mate. There were significant divides in the republican party, generally between factions that had supported other candidates in their primaries. Like the democrats, they were looking for someone who could unite their base; unlike the democrats, that choice focused on which candidate was least likely to be viewed as weak on a national ticket.

McCain wanted to pick Joe Lieberman, or Tom Ridge, rather than one of the choices the two major republican factions were advocating. Both of these choices were eliminated, because of the recognition that while they were not "weak" in qualifications, either would divide the republican base. As a result, McCain selected Sarah Palin in an obvious attempt to divide the democratic base.

The immediate result was that Palin created interest in the republican ticket. In fact, Palin began to outshine McCain. That was highlighted in her reference to the "Palin-McCain" ticket. But when the public began to become more familiar with Sarah Palin, that glow rapidly faded. The result was that McCain has "suspended" his campaign once, and the public has begun to suspend belief in it, as well.

{4} "I happen to be a Republican president – ah, the vice president." – Daniel Quayle.

The VP debate will be based upon the number three. There are two reasons. First, the public is aware that in US history, one out of three vice presidents goes on to be president.
Second, as always, there are the "three groups": {a} those who always support you; {b} those who always oppose you; and {c} the "undecided," who frequently decide the outcome of elections.

In early September, most polls indicated that the contest was close. Both Obama and McCain had a relatively solid Group A, who appeared unlikely to change positions before election day. But appearances can be deceiving. As republicans became more familiar with Sarah Palin, a number of them became convinced that McCain needed to replace her on the ticket.

It is, however, too late for McCain to exercise that option. Thus, tomorrow night’s VP debate will be aimed at the three largest, often overlapping, segments of undecided voters: independents, some democrats, and women. This debate will show which of the two candidates is more qualified to serve as vice president, and potentially as president. And, just as in the first Obama vs McCain debate, the result will be an important gain for the democratic ticket.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Community Organizing

{1} A Disorganized Dust of Individuals

"Durkheim, in his classic work on suicide, assumed that the cause is to be found in a phenomenon which he called ‘anomie.’ He referred by that term to the destruction of all the traditional social bonds, to the fact that all truly collective organization has become secondary to the state, and that all genuine social life has been annihilated. He believed that the people living in the modern political state are ‘a disorganized dust of individuals’."
--Erich Fromm; The Sane Society; 1955; pages 136-137.

Emile Durkheim was one of the "founding fathers" of sociology. The book that Erich Fromm quotes from, "Le Suicide," was published in 1897. His collection of works are still used in sociology and anthropology classes in colleges and universities around the world.

Among his most important contributions was his focus on the role of the individual in traditional societies, versus in modern society. A century later, the social pathology that Durkheim and others noted has become more entrenched: the break-up of the extended family unit, due primarily to economic influences; poverty; crime; depression and other mental illnesses; substance abuse and addiction; and suicide rates all provide evidence of the break-down of modern, high-tech society.

In this context, we must examine why a potential US Vice President would attack a community organizer.

{2} The Contest of the Future

"There is no doubt in my mind that a major crisis exists. I believe, however, that it is deeper and more pround than racism, violence, and economic deprivation. American society is undergoing a total replacement of its philosophical concepts. Words are being emptied of old meanings and new values are coming in to fill the vacuum. Racial antagonisms, inflation, ecological destruction, and power groups are all symptoms of the emergence of a new world view of man and his society. ….

"…… It would appear to me that modern society has two alternatives at this point. American people are being pushed into new social forms because of the complex nature of modern communications and transportation, and the competing forms are neotribalism and neofeudalism. The contest is between a return to the castle or the tipi.

"The difference between the castle and the tipi is immense, yet there are such great similarities that it is difficult to distinguish between them. Each offers social identity and economic security within a definite communal system. But the leveling process of the tribal form prevents hereditary control over a social pyramid, and the feudalistic form has the efficiency to create and control technology. Both are needed if we are to rule machines instead of submit to them.

"Many people can and will support the return of the castle. We have already experienced Camelot and the universal longing for its return. The massive corporate organizations have driven us into the era of neofeudalism. But the continual failure of the total economic system to support the population and the corporations speaks of the necessity to reorient social goals more in line with a tribal-communal life style. Tribalism can only be presented in mosaic form. ….."
--Vine Deloria, Jr.; We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf; 1970; pages 13-15.

Again, we should consider Sarah Palin’s attack on community organizers in the this context: is she actually against community organization? Or do her comments indicate that she is in favor of organizing the society on the model of the corporate castle, and simply opposes organizing on the "tribal" level?

I believe that most progressive and liberal citizens will agree that Ms. Palin is an advocate for the corporate castle. This allows a tiny minority to exploit the larger community, and that exploitation depends upon keeping individuals in a disorganized dust.

Tribal identity teaches unity. Alone, we are like individual fingers that our enemies can easily break. United, we form a powerful fist, where the fingers unite in a manner that is capable of protecting the interests of the larger community from those seeking to exploit them.

{3} Community Organization

Malcolm: "The only person who can organize the man in the street is the one who is unacceptable to the white community. They don’t trust the other kind. They don’t know who controls his actions. …. Let’s say I’m going to create an awareness of what has been done to them. This awareness will produce an abundance of energy, both negative and positive, that can be channeled constructively ….

"The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action."

Marlene Nadle: "Wake them up to their exploitation?"

Malcolm: "No, to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage. …."
--Village Voice; February 25, 1965.

I was lucky as a teenager: I had a friend/ mentor who had been friends with both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. When I first knew him, I was a top amateur boxer, and anticipated that I would have a career as a professional fighter. My friend, who had been a world-famous fighter, convinced me that I should hang up the boxing gloves, and instead focus on getting a college education. He told me that there were more important contests for me to prepare to engage in.

In part, I was able to pay for my education by working summers. I worked on foundations, and septic systems. It wasn’t glamorous work. It was hard, physically tiring, hot, and dirty. People driving by didn’t see me, and appreciate the quality of the work I did. But my father taught me that if a building didn’t have a strong foundation, that pretty soon its roof and ceilings would be damaged. And without a good septic system, the family living in the house would find it mighty uncomfortable.

As a young man who engaged in community organizing, I found there were similarities to that construction work. It was difficult and very tiring. People passing by on the streets of life might not recognize what I was doing, or appreciate my efforts. But without a strong foundation, the top of the social structure will fracture, too.

Those at the top appreciated some of my work. I helped create community-based programs that served children and youth in a cost-saving manner. Everyone could feel good about that. But more often, when I organized groups so that they could advocate for themselves, the people "at the top" resented and opposed my efforts. This was always directly related to attempts on their part to either directly or indirectly benefit from exploiting individuals and families at the margins of society.

I’m an old man now, and do not have the strength or ability to build foundations with the blocks and stones I could once lift. But I still try to do my part. And I have the utmost respect for those other community organizers who work daily, without the rewards they deserve, to repair and rebuild out society’s foundation. I encourage those who read this essay to continue to organize by educating others to their humanity and their worth.

Thank you,
H2O Man

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Buzzards and Snakes

"Reporters had begun circling Muskie like buzzards, just as they had done to Romney in 1967; everyone wanted to be the first guy to claim the scalp of a front-runner. ….. Richard Nixon showed more than a casual interest in the news. It was evidence his campaign plan to get the Democrats to scratching each other’s eyeballs out was bearing fruit.

"A White House staffer, not ‘Paul Morrison,’ had written the ‘Canuck’ letter. A man on the White House payroll had hired and supervised the black picketers who greeted Muskie at his Florida hotel. His name was David Segretti, and he had also secured a spy to get hired as Muskie’s campaign driver – which is how Evans and Novak got the secret memo on Muskie’s California property-tax hearings. The director of the Youth for Nixon unit of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Kenneth Rietz, received stolen Muskie documents on Washington street corners from a contact known as ‘Fat Jack.’ Jeb Magruder, the deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, ran another, entirely separate dirty tricks team. Thus all the fake leaflets, stink bombs, stickers, and press releases claiming unlawful use of government typewriters that were driving the Democratic campaigns insane. ….

"Segretti turned to more willing recruits: fellow veterans of conservative campus politics. Political dirty tricks were the bread and meat of the young conservative movement that organized in the early sixties around the National Review and the Goldwater for President crusade. Young Americans for Freedom, Tom Charles Huston’s old outfit, for example, set up camp in a hotel for the 1961 conference of the National Student Association with a mimeograph machine, walkie-talkies, and a bevy of secret operatives who pretended to be strangers but identified themselves to one another by wearing suspenders – all funded with the help of Bill Rusher, National Review’s publisher and another former army intelligence officer – and took over the resolutions committee via a phoney ‘middle-of-the-road caucus.’ The Young Republican National Federation was shot through with so much chicanery that its 1963 convention turned into a chair-throwing brawl. College Republicans put on elections more rank than banana republics: here was where young operatives learned the black art of setting up ‘rotten boroughs’ – fake chapters – in order to control the national conventions.

"Then they brought their skills to the grown-up’ game. One especially nasty operator was loaned by the College Republicans to the campaign to defeat the Democratic candidate for state treasurer in Illinois in 1970, Al Dixon. Dixon was having a formal reception to open his Chicago headquarters. This kid assumed an alias, volunteered for the campaign, stole the candidate’s stationary, and distributed a thousand fake invitations – they promised ‘free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing’ – at communes, rock concerts, and street corners where Chicago’s drunken hoboes congregated. The kid’s name was Karl Rove. The RNC soon hired him at $9,200 a year to give seminars on his techniques."
--Rick Perlstein; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; pages 628-630.

As the presidential primary season ends, and the general election contest begins to take shape, the spirit of Richard Nixon'’ "dirty tricks" will manifest itself in new and different ways. During the democratic primaries, the goal of these republican operatives is to damage unity among democrats. It is worth taking a few moments to examine both how and why they will be coming out in full force during the general election contest.

First, the strength of the democratic party lies in its ability to unite a wide range of groups and individuals, with a variety of interests in the presidential and congressional elections. These groups include progressive, liberal, moderate, and conservative democrats; those with specific interests, including fighting racism, sexism, ageism, and numerous other "-isms"; environmentalists; labor unions; anti-war groups; the young, middle-aged, and old; the poor, the middle class, and even a segment of the wealthy; and democrats from the grass roots, and local, state, and federal positions.

Among the interests that we share as democrats is a common enemy. That common enemy is the republican machine. Alone, each of us is like an individual finger that the republican machine can crush and break. Together, we form a powerful fist that is fully capable of protecting all of our interests.

The republican operatives seek to weaken democratic unity. They do so for the most obvious of reasons: to keep us as individual fingers that they can break. To do so, they try to identify the areas where they can exploit differences among us. In 2008, those areas include issues including race, sex, and the ability for the democratic party to coordinate efforts from the grass roots to the presidential campaign – and everywhere in between.

Obviously, some things have changed since 1972. The media is far more entrenched in the republican camp. And the internet has offered democrats a powerful means of organizing and coordinating our efforts.

Thus, we can expect to see the republican operatives focusing their efforts to manipulate both the media and the internet. More, these efforts will be coordinated to the fullest extent possible. The most obvious example is what is know as "PUMA," a republican effort to plant seeds of dissent, distrust, and animosity among some of the larger and most important groups within the democratic party. The media can be expected to support their efforts to make PUMA-like groups appear to be organic democratic splinter groups. But, of course, they are being run by republican operatives.

There will also be an increase in the number of individuals who claim to represent democratic values, who will continue to try to plant those seeds on the internet sites that offer the promise of being able to unite grass roots democratic activists, especially among the progressive and liberal ranks.

This is not to suggest that there are not tensions within our party. There are. And there should be. There are people who have become frustrated and angry during the primary season, and who voice serious concerns. There are elected officials in Washington, DC, who have behaved in dishonorable ways in the Bush-Cheney years. We must be patient with the first group, and let the second group know that we have no more patience with them.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Presidency & the Federal Courts

" The day after that press conference where {President Nixon} tried to frame the thirty-fifth president of the United States for murder, as Americans absorbed the Attica massacre, he received the resignation of eighty-five-year-old Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. Almost simultaneously, Justice John Marshall Harlan announced that he, too, would retire.

"John Mitchell proposed Richard Poff of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who had offered amendments to strip from the 1966 civil rights bill the power to sue for civil rights violations. Poff decided he didn’t welcome the confirmation fight, so Nixon cast his eye over Democrat Robert Byrd: another thing for the Dems to scratch each other’s eyeballs out over. ‘He’s a real reactionary. The Democrats just made him their whip. And he was in the Ku Klux Klan when he was young. Send them a message.’ (That was George Wallace’s slogan.) A list of six candidates leaked to the American Bar Association revealed the political opportunism: Byrd, who’d never been admitted to the bar or practiced law; three undistinguished women, a nod to the ERA ferment (one was a segregationist leader); an appeals court judge who’d built his reputation defending Mississippi governor Ross Barnett against contempt charges when he’d refused to let James Meredith attend Ole Miss. Chief Justice Burger said he’d resign if any of them were appointed. ‘Fuck him,’ Nixon responded. ‘Fuck the ABA.’ Which somehow made it into the New Republic. Which received a prompt letter from John Ehrlickman: ‘The simple fact is that in the many hours I have spent with the President I have never heard him use the word attributed to him in Mr. Osborne’s piece.’

"Nixon was deferential enough to the ABA to change course: one of the eventual nominees was a former ABA president, the Virginian Lewis Powell. The other was the Justice Department’s William Rehnquist. Both were received well by the experts. The White House heaved a sigh of relief: two conservatives passed the smell test. Powell was the author of a memo to the Chamber of Commerce arguing that ‘the American economic system is under broad attack ….from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectuals and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.’ He proposed a multipoint plan(‘a long road and not one for the faint-hearted’) to ideologically monitor universities and the media, push for more aggressive pro-business intervention in the courts, and politically organize corporations. Rehnquist had reportedly called for law and order in times of domestic insurrection ‘at whatever cost in individual liberties and rights.’

" ‘Rehnquist is pretty far right, isn’t he?’ Kissinger asked Haldeman.

" ‘Oh, Christ,’ Haldeman replied. ‘He’s way to the right of Buchanan.’ "
--Rick Perlstein; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; pages 604-605.

The next President of the United States will probably appoint two justices to the United States Supreme Court. More, he will decide numerous other federal court appointments. The public will decide if John McCain or Barack Obama will determine the nature of those federal court justices. And those individuals will define Constitutional Law for the next generation.

"But it has to be noted that the US Constitution is only what those who warm the bench say it is. At present, we have two right-wing zealots on the bench; two right-wingers (we’ll know later if they are zealots); one normal, moderate Republican; and four ordinary, sensible people. So we have four justices who are frightening or potentially frightening, and five who are not.

"America should realize that if one of the five retires or dies, and Bush (or any conservative successor of his) appoints only one more right-winger to take his or her place, America, incrementally, will become a different nation, for the worse, to live in. We are that close, just one justice, from waking up in the morning to a new America. Hypothetically – and I’m not saying that five right-wing justices would necessarily make such a ruling – if a search and seizure case came before the court in which the police, though having time to get a search warrant, broke into an American home without one, and the court held that this was not an ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, America would change overnight."
--Vincent Bugliosi; The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder; page 248.

We simply cannot afford to have John McCain in the Oval Office. Let’s dedicate ourselves to the effort to elect Barack Obama this fall. There is far too much at stake here to do otherwise.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Taking of Thought"

"The situation in Vietnam presents us with our most urgent problem today in the field of foreign affairs. But the Vietnam problem is only the most vivid expression of a deeper crisis in American foreign policy. The roots of this deeper crisis lie not in the malevolence of men but in the obsolescence of ideas.

"For we live in a time when the velocity of history is greater than ever before. The world has changed more in the last hundred years than it did in the thousand years preceding. The transformations wrought by science and technology have acquired a cumulative momentum and exponential effect. One consequence is that perceptions of reality become obsolete with new and disconcerting rapidity. This would be all right, if the way we perceive reality changed as reality itself changes. But, as we all know, it doesn’t. Our perceptions of reality are crystallized in a collection of stereotypes; and people become so fond of the stereotypes, so much at home with them, that they stop looking at actuality. In this way they protect themselves from the most painful of human necessities, which is, of course, the taking of thought.

"The rapidity with which reality outstrips our perception of reality is an underlying source of our troubles with foreign policy. I do not suggest that, if our perceptions were kept up to date, this would solve all of our problems, because many of the great problems of the world are in their nature insoluble. But I am sure that we cannot make much sense at all in the world as long as we continue to base policy on anachronism. We must be forever vigilant to prevent transient strategies from turning into cherished and permanent verities.

"Thus the ideas which dominate our foreign policy today were largely shaped by a very different world – a world threatened by massive, unitary, centralized movements of military aggression and social fanaticism: Adolf Hitler and Nazism in the thirties, Josef Stalin and Communism in the forties and early fifties. These ideas were admirably suited for this world and admirably achieved their objectives. They reflected a great and challenging time in world history, and the men who grew up in that time and acquired those ideas quite naturally find it hard to relinquish them. Yet the world itself has changed drastically – and this fact surely demands the review, if not the revision, of the presuppositions of our policy."
--Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; The Bitter Heritage; March 8, 1967.

The 2008 presidential election contest between John McCain and Brack Obama provides a stark contrast between the "old" and the "new." No election since 1960’s Kennedy vs Nixon has presented the nation with such an obvious choice between the stale policies of the republican party, and the democratic party’s ability to lead us into a New Frontier.

The American public is beginning to recognize the differences between the two candidates as we move towards the national conventions. John McCain comes across as a captive of the Bush-Cheney failed policies, who advocates continuing the war of occupation in Iraq for "a hundred, maybe a thousand years," and "more wars, my friends."

His strongest campaign tactic will be commercials – which have already started – that attempt to portray him in a manner that the candidate himself can not live up to in his personal appearances. At the time that Schlesinger was saying the country needed to change its way of thinking, there were commercials showing the "new Nixon." Yet no single question better summed up Nixon’s career than "would you buy a used car from this man?"

Our goal as grass roots activists is to ask the country if they would buy a used candidate from the republican party?

In 1960, history was made when the public saw John Kennedy debating Richard Nixon. Kennedy looked young, confident, attractive, and prepared to lead this country into the future. Nixon looked unattractive, hesitant, and untrustworthy.

This fall, when Barack Obama participates in the presidential debates with John McCain, there will be similar images. Our job during the summer months is to prepare the public for seeing the differences between the two candidates. We know that the public is thirsty for change: we need to keep presenting Obama as a fresh, cool, clear glass of sparkling water, and John McCain as an old, stale drink in a dirty republican cup.

Monday, July 07, 2008


"Adlai Stevenson and his learned speechwriter had coined a useful word, Nixonland. They just did not grasp its full resonance. …. Thus a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon, are the spiritual heirs of Stevenson and Galbraith. They take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end. The second group are the people who wrote those telegrams begging Dwight D. Eisenhower to keep their hero on the 1952 Republican ticket. They believe, as Nixon did, that if the enemies of Richard Nixon triumph – the Alger Hisses and Helen Gahagan Douglases, the Herblocks and hippies, the George McGoverns and all the rest – America might end. The DNC was right: an amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. ‘Nixonland’ is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years."
--Rick Perlstein; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; Scribner; 2008; pages 46-47.

Why would anyone write another book on Nixon? And why the heck would anyone read another book, especially one that is more than 800 pages long, about Richard Nixon? Is it not better to forget the man who was forced to resign from the presidency in utter disgrace?

Two weeks ago, I watched Rick Perlstein debating Patrick Buchanan on the MSNBC morning show. Buchanan’s attacks on Perlstein’s book, and the authors humorous responses – which indicated he was fully aware of Buchanan’s activities in the Nixon White House – caught my attention. Surely, Buchanan would not have reacted as he did, if he was not sensitive to this new book. More, Perlstein came across as a gifted communicator. I decided to purchase the book on my next trip to a book store.

There have been numerous important and highly readable books on Richard Nixon. Among these are a few very important ones which tend to fall into one of two groups: the first focuses on the criminal nature of Nixon the politician; the second, smaller group, provide a psychological profile of this strangest of America’s Presidents.

I bought a dozen books on my weekend trip to Barnes & Noble, and admittedly have not finished Perlstein’s book. I am, however, concentrating on it more so than the others. Thus far, it has not introduced any new information on Richard Nixon. What the author does is to present the previously known information in a unique way: rather than a psychological study of the president, "Nixonland" is a sociological study of how a politician who had so many repulsive traits was able to get elected in 1968, and re-elected in ’72.

He also includes information that documents something that is far too often overlooked: that Nixon was the first vice president to really change the nature of that office. It is often remembered that during the 1960 election, when a reporter asked Ike to list some of VP Nixon’s accomplishments, that he said he might need a week to make such a list. The press took this as the President’s disrespecting his vice president, and in truth, he likely did. But he also knew that most of VP Nixon’s main responsibilities had been in the areas of secret, international programs which were classified.

Like all tyrants, Richard Nixon appreciated that if a ruler/ politician could get a large group of people to hate a common enemy, those people would willing forget their own low level of being. From 1963 to 1968, Nixon was able to manipulate and exploit the darkest passions in "main stream" American society.

Perlstein notes that Nixon was "a serial collector of resentments." In a five-year period that included the civil rights movement and riots in ghettos, the anti-war movement and a divisive war in Vietnam, and plans for a "Great Society" and economic hardships, Richard Nixon was able to make full use of his collection of resentments. He understood the power of the fear and anxiety that many Americans – including Democrats as well as Republicans – were experiencing.

For many of us, looking back in 2008, there is a memory of believing that the USA could never have a worse criminal than Nixon for President. Then came Reagan, Bush the Elder, and now Bush2. This has resulted in many people recalling Nixon as something of a moderate in comparison. And, in fact, his administration did a few good things. But it is important to recognize that Nixonland made Reagan and the Bushes possible. In fact, the book covers the curious relationship between Nixon and Reagan, which is too often overlooked by history books.

The tactics that Richard Nixon and others, including Patrick Buchanan, used in those years are the same tactics that the republican party is using today. There was a time, after his loses in the early 1960s, when the public and the "experts" wrote Nixon off. They did not think there was any serious chance of his ever being elected to an important office (especially the presidency) in the future.

Today, many people assume that there is no way that McCain can beat Obama, or that the republicans can keep from losing seats in the US House of Representatives or the Senate. But democrats must be aware of the fact that the republicans will certainly try. We must also be able to recognize their tactics when we see them – and we are seeing them these days, in the media and on the internet.

I strongly recommend reading Perlstein’s book, "Nixonland."

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

By Any Means Necessary

(Note: This essay originally appeared on the political discussion forum, "The Democratic Underground.")

"In the eyes of history, our greatest presidents have proved their qualities of greatness when confronted by great challenges -- war, depression, and moral issues from slavery to civil rights. The discovery that the Soviet Union had secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba tested JFK's wisdom, courage, and leadership as no president since Lincoln and FDR had been tested. No other test so sharply put at stake, depending on the president's choices, the survival of our country. It was for that moment that he had been elected; and it was for that moment that he will most be remembered."-- Ted Sorensen; Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History; 2008; pages 308-309.

One of the very best books of the year is Ted Sorensen's history of his service to President John F. Kennedy. Chapter 23 covers the Cuban Missile Crisis (pages 285-309). Since his experience in 1962, Sorensen has had the opportunity to find that had JFK followed the advice of those who advocated military strikes against Cuban targets -- including the recommendations of his top military advisers -- the outcome would have involved unexpected consequences. The results would have likely included missiles already in Cuba being fired at the USA, and if President Kennedy had responded in kind, it is possible that the conflict would have spiraled further out of control.

It is a good thing that Kennedy was President. Had any of the four other presidents surrounding JFK been in office (Truman, Ike, LBJ, or Nixon), it is unlikely that their judgement would have allowed for the peaceful resolution that President Kennedy reached. Sorensen notes that this episode led to JFK's most important speech, the June 1963 address at American University.

Ted Sorensen was among the first people to endorse Senator Barack Obama. He has said repeatedly that his confidence in Obama is based upon his impression that he is the first candidate who has the same sense of judgement as JFK had. This is important when we consider the choice that Americans will make in November, between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Two of the most important issues at hand involve the US war of occupation in Iraq, and the closely-related issue of Iran. There is a group within the Bush administration that is advocating the US military conduct air strikes on targets within Iran. This group, which is centered in the Office of the Vice President, was involved in the neocon/AIPAC espionage scandal, where highly classified military intelligence concerning Iran was passed on to intelligence officers from another country in the Middle East. Some of the leaders from that country are advocating the US conduct the air strikes on targets in Iran, and some have suggested they are weighing their options for such strikes.

John McCain has shown himself willing to cooperate with those in the OVP who advocate aggression against Iran. Some neoconservatives have spoken publicly about the likelihood of a conflict between the US and Iran. This is, I believe, the primary reason that General Wesley Clark has sounded the alarm, and reminded the public that we must evaluate each candidate's judgement on military matters.

The war of occupation in Iraq -- from the lies that led to the invasion, to today -- show that the republican party's current leadership has poor judgement on these matters. The consequences of this war are not even close to what their "experts" predicted. The possible strikes on Iran would also lead to consequences this merry band of fools does not anticipate.There are numerous important issues to be discussed and debated in the weeks and months ahead. But none are more important than the issue of judgement in military matters.

Our choice in November will impact every other issue that we recognize as being important in our attempts to rebuild the foundation of our Constitutional democracy.

It's time for all sincere DUers to focus on what is important. Please ignore the apparently coordinated "concern" campaign, and keep your eyes on the prize. Work to elect Barack Obama and other democratic candidates at every level -- by any means necessary.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A European View of Obama

June 9, 2008
Obama, like JFK, has the wind behind him
The Democrat presidential candidate is trying to create a new kind of politics in the United States - and beyond
William Rees-Mogg

Obama is the Kennedy of a new generation. I have strong personal memories of the Kennedy election in 1960 that took a Roman Catholic to the White House for the first time. As early as January and February of this year, starting before Super Tuesday on February 5, I was discussing the comparison between the Obama and Kennedy campaigns.

On February 18 I wrote: "It is hard to see who can stop Senator Barack Obama becoming the next president of the United States. He has built up an excitement such as no candidate has created since President Kennedy in 1960." Hillary Clinton tried to stop him and she failed. The Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, is a fine man, but he will not wage as forceful a campaign as Senator Clinton. ….

Kennedy was himself an excellent speaker, but Obama is an even better one. He had a warmer voice and better natural rhythms of speech. Kennedy's Boston accent sounded more elitist; he broke up his sentences into little chunks, which interrupted his flow.

Obama combines the reflective with the declamatory; he has managed to use the black rhythms, which remind one of orators such as Martin Luther King, while avoiding the exaggeration of some black preachers. Indeed, his tone of thoughtful moderation enabled him to diminish the impact of some foolish remarks by his own old preacher. ….

It is Obama, like Kennedy, who has the momentum of history.


William Rees-Mogg was editor of London newspaper The Times from 1967 to 1981.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Loser & Still Champion

(This essay appears on the political discussion forum the "Democratic Underground.")

{1} " ‘End of the Ali Legend’ a national sports magazine front-paged its coverage of The Fight. But the next day, lying in bed with his head out of shape but still very much together, Ali was proving himself an extremely lively corpse. Could a Super Ego like Ali, who has made braggadoccio a way of life, live with himself in defeat? It was expected that the firemen would have to come with their nets to catch the despondent ex-champion who could not bear the harsh reality after all those years in the rosy glow of unnatural perfection. But here was a new Ali, winning a new constituency with his unexpectedly graceful acceptance of defeat, suggesting with almost Boy-Scoutish piety that losing can be good for the soul and hoping it will help his people by setting an example in how to lose if lose you must. And then, the extrovert who shifts effortlessly into retrospection, ‘A plane crashes. A President gets assassinated. A civil rights leader assassinated. People forget in two weeks. Old news.’

"There are worse things than defeat in the ring, he says, and from even the worse tragedies people recover. The Fall and Rise of Muhammad Ali is practically instant. … He’s our black Johnny Appleseed. He’s in pursuit of a buck and in pursuit of the truth and somehow the expansiveness of his personality bridges contradictions that would undo the normal you’s and me’s. …..

"The scenario of Muhammad Ali is the sum of all our baseness and nobility. He is the mirror in which we may examine our viciousness, our thoughtlessness, and our flash moments of virtue. He is our time. It is a time of light and a time of darkness. A time when Americans may irrevocably tear themselves apart or succeed at last in putting themselves together, cleansed of cancerous hypocrisies. ….

"How this historic decision (Ali’s victory in the US Supreme Court on his draft case), Ali’s costly victory, speaks to our future only that future, pressed back into the past as history, can tell. Is it a sign of our painful confession for past sins, without which there cannot be a national reconciliation? Does it mean that we finally are awakening from our collective nightmare…?"
--Budd Schulberg; Loser and Still Champion: Muhammad Ali;1971; Popular Library.

All of life – at its very best, and, indeed, at its very worst – imitates the sport of boxing. And so when I listened to Senator Hillary Clinton’s powerful speech yesterday, I was reminded of Muhammad Ali’s grace and strength after his loss to Joe Frazier in the March 8, 1971 "Fight of the Century."

That loss provided an opportunity not only for Ali to learn and hence grow, but for his fans to, as well. More, it allowed many of the boxing fans and others who disliked Ali, often strongly, to come to respect Muhammad Ali in a way that could not have happened had Ali won that fight. In 1972, Elvis Presley gave Muhammad a boxing robe with the words "The People’s Champion" on the back. And by the time that Muhammad held the Olympic torch, few people resented him for the bitterness of his struggle against Uncle Sam, decades earlier.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign must also be viewed as something that both her supporters and detractors can learn from. Although I have supported Barack Obama since February, and came to resent some of the tactics of the Clinton campaign, I have more admiration for Hillary Clinton than I did in 2000 and 2006, when I worked for her campaigns for the Senate in New York State.

Even on the Democratic Underground, where more than a few of the discussions, debates, and arguments resembled low blows, butts, and rabbit punches, we have the opportunity to put that acrimony behind us, and reflect upon what we all may have learned. For me, it is a greater appreciation for the experience of females – of all ages – in our society. If I fail to learn from this, then I have wasted an important to grow as a human being. And if I fail to grow as a human being, then I betray the opportunity to help repair the damage that forces represented by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have done to our country.

{2}"The guard on duty that morning at the Hudson County Jail unlocked my cell door and escorted me out to the front desk where the telephone was hanging down off the hook. He motioned for me to pick it up. I had no idea what was going on, but I picked up the phone anyway.

" ‘Is this the Hurricane?’ Muhammad Ali asked from 12,000 miles away. ‘Well, I just won my big fight here in Zaire in the eighth round,’ he said, ‘and now I’m coming back to America to help you win your Sixteenth Round. Just hang in there, Champ, I’m on my way!’

"So, to Rubin, Hurricane and Carter, Muhammad Ali means ‘One who has walked and talked with Kings, and yet has not lost the common touch.’ And perhaps our philosophy is one and the same. That only after hard and sometimes bitter conflict with the many injustices that pollute this world ….comes peace.

"Muhammad Ali means Constant Struggle!

"But that’s what America’s all about. Is it not?"

--Rubin "Hurricane" Carter; What Ali means to Black People …. And All People; World Boxing Magazine; 1974

As we approach the Democratic National Convention, and the November elections, our party needs to consider the demographics. "Demographics" are simply the population characteristics of the country, state by state. We need to win the presidency and make advances in the Congress, as well achieve victories in state and local elections, no single demographic is as important as having massive voter turnout. We want to win our fight in November in the overwhelming manner that Ali won his most important fights. In 2008, this means uniting the Obama and Clinton branches of the democratic party.

In order to heal the wounds that George W. Bush has inflicted on the fabric of our society, and repair the damage Dick Cheney has done to the foundation of our Constitutional democracy, we must have a united effort. Though Barack Obama has won the democratic primary contest, we will not win in November if we do not learn the harsh lessons from the past few months. All of us.

That means Constant Struggle. But that is what America is all about. Is it not?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Unconventional Behaviors

{1} Unconventional Politics

I recently spoke with a friend who expressed frustration at the path that Senator Hillary Clinton has taken in the democratic presidential primary. She said that Senator Clinton’s behaviors suggest that she "only cares about herself." I understand why many good democrats and progressives on the left feel this way. This has been a long and often harsh primary season, and at this point, most democrats would like some resolution to the issues that threaten to divide our party. But it is important for us to recognize that Hillary Clinton does not actually only care about herself – and once we do this, we can then identify what is the actual cause of the unconventional behaviors that we are witnessing today.

Even Senator Clinton’s harshest critics should be objective enough to recognize that the central issue of importance to her in her political career has been a form of social justice that includes health care. Hillary’s approach may be different than my friend’s, because of of the two is a product of their own unique experiences. But they also share common ground: my friend, who is a bit older than Senator Clinton, helped make programs such as Head Start a reality for families in this country, and no one can doubt that this is exactly the type of program that Senator Clinton advocates.

My friend is a Lakota, or Sioux. Thus, her world-view includes seeing the children in Iraq as being equal in human value to children at any place of any time in human history. Her greatest frustration with Senator Clinton has to do with the vote on the Bush plan to invade Iraq. More, there is a concern that Senator Clinton may have been prone to continuing the policies of President Clinton, that caused so much suffering for the children of Iraq.

{2} The Art of Party Politics

The mainstream media continues to portray the Obama vs Clinton contest as primarily a struggle between individuals. More insightful journalists have identified it as battle between two factions for control of the national leadership of the party. If we view this in the limited manner of a fight between individuals, Senator Clinton is mistakenly viewed as a narcissist who risks destroying the party’s chances in November for purely selfish reasons. When we recognize that there is something much larger going on beneath the surface issues that the corporate media reports, then and only then do we begin to get an accurate picture of what has taken place between November of 2007 and today.

Struggles for control of the democratic party is not "new." In 1960, for example, Robert Kennedy was the driving force behind electing his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and thus taking control of the party. In 1976, Hamilton Jordan masterminded Jimmy Carter’s election, allowing another group to take control. And in 1992, Bill Clinton was able to take the party’s leadership. In each case, the new president’s ability to exercise control and pass legislation was based on their ability to coordinate efforts with the other groups within the party.

Around May 20, in keeping with the phenomenon of news being reported on the Democratic Underground before being covered by the corporate media, I told DUers that Representative Rahm Emanuel had been tasked with telling Senator Clinton that she would need to accept the decision of the Rules & Bylaws Committee, regarding Florida and Michigan. If she opted to contest it, numerous supporters in Washington would stand down, and the super delegates would endorse Obama after the June 3rd primaries, putting the contest beyond her reach. I said that she would end her campaign on June 6.

After the RBC meeting, a couple of journalists noted that Obama had taken control of the democratic party. Indeed, Americans watching the RBC hearing saw a contest between two distinct groups, with a third group siding with the Obama forces. However, in keeping with a long line of media failures, the corporate media refused to take this event a step. Let’s take a minute to look a bit closer at what happened, and how it is playing out today.

{3}Political Power

The word "power" comes from the Latin root "posse," which mean the ability to do. Political power is simply the ability to accomplish goals. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton attempted to accomplish her goals for health care. Her failure can be traced to her inability to get other groups, including congressional democrats, to support her efforts.

Some of President Clinton’s accomplishments resulted from his ability to coordinate efforts with others, including republicans. Perhaps the most important example was his damaging habeas corpus by uniting conservative republicans to accomplish this.

After losing the 1980 democratic primary, Ted Kennedy would become the nation’s most accomplished Senator by uniting a large base of democrats in Washington. He also worked closely with republicans on the Hill to exercise power.

Senator Clinton is today facing an important decision. She has lost the primary contest. She has to decide if she wants to return to the Senate; to try to become the Vice President under Barack Obama; or accept a position as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, where she could accomplish her goals in health care.

This decision involves her goals as an individual, as well as her position as representative of a large group within the democratic party. While the Senate is a powerful institution, it is possible that her position would be of diminished capacity to exercise influence should she return.

There are key people within her group advocating that she use her strength to become vice president. Publicly, the face of the efforts to get her on the ticket are Representative Charles Rangel and Lanny Davis; behind the scenes, Bill Clinton and Harold Ickles are calling the shots.
But Hillary Clinton’s career has been focused on human service issues, such as universal health care. By working with the Obama administration, she would have the political power to accomplish her goals in this area.

{4} The Fourth Way

Barack Obama’s unlikely rise to national political power is the result of his ability to unite distinct groups in American society. He has united the grass roots (aka "net roots"), black Americans, and the Kennedy branch of the democratic party. This coalition is unique in recent political history.

The 2008 democratic primary featured other unique events. Besides the contest between two of the usual groups of the party, this primary was a historic event, because it featured a black man and a women. For the first time, these two important groups within the traditional democratic base had a candidate representing their interests.

The republican party is, of course, hoping to be able to exploit the passons of the groups who sided with the Clinton campaign against Barack Obama in the primary. The republicans are like a pack of hyenas, looking to tear away democrats from the outside of our party.

Those in positions of party leadership recognize this potential danger, and are thus applying pressure on Senator Clinton to rise above the more limited interests of her wing of the party, and to unite with the Obama campaign. This is unlikely to lead to her being selected as VP on the ticket. Instead, it will mean her accepting an offer to serve as the head of Health and Human Services, which holds the promise of her being able to accomplish her long-time goals of universal health care, and other important services for families and children in America.

As we approach this important weekend, keep these concepts in mind

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY)

Every morning, my oldest daughter (age 14) and I watch the news together, and discuss "current events." Today, of course, there is coverage of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. She asked me what I remembered from that day? As I answered her, I felt a lump in my throat, something I suspect others my age are experiencing today.

My oldest brother used to be focused on the deaths of JFK and RFK. My father always said that he was missing their true significance, which was their lives, rather than their deaths.

This morning, I thought I’d share ten quotes that remind me of what it was that made Robert Kennedy such an important leader for so many Americans who are remembering him today. I hope that you enjoy them, and will add your thoughts on RFK.

H2O Man

{1} "Bobby was forging a new democratic coalition – a politics of outsiders – that he could only hope would be enough to gain the nomination. Kennedy emerged as ‘our first politician for the pariahs, our great national outsider, our lonely reproach, the natural standard held out to rebels,’ Kempton observed. ‘That is the wound about him which speaks to children he has never seen. He will always speak to children, and he will probably always be out of power.’ Once the hard-charging realist of his brother’s campaign, Bobby Kennedy turned into an almost quixotic candidate who jumped into the murky waters of 1968 on impulse rather than by calculated design. …. Bobby wouldn’t hear of not running. What he said about the lessons of Vietnam now seemed to apply to himself and his country: ‘Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.’ " – Thomas Maier; The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings

{2} "Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustains me through temporary periods of joy." – W. B. Yeats

{3} "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling that justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black." – Robert F. Kennedy; April 4, 1968

{4} "After a long discussion of the country’s woes, the interviewer asked Bobby, ‘But you are an optimist?’ Kennedy nodded and smiled his weary-eyed smile. ‘Just because you can’t live any other way, can you?’ he replied. He was America’s first and last existential leader." – David Talbot; Brothers

{5} "It has been said that each generation must win its own struggle to be free …..But the stakes are the same: the right to live in dignity according to the dictates of conscience and not according to the will of the state." – Robert F. Kennedy

{6} "I love my country too much to be a nationalist." – Albert Camus

{7} "Dangerous changes in American life are indicated by what is going on in America today. Disaster is our destiny unless we reinstall the toughness, the moral idealism which has guided this nation during its history. The paramount interest in oneself, for money, for material goods, for security, must be replaced by an interest in one another – an actual, not just vocal, interest in our country; a search for adventure, a willingness to fight, a will to win; a desire to serve our community, our schools, our nation.

{8} "So if we are uneasy about our country today, perhaps it is because we are truer to our principles than we realize, because we know that our happiness will come not from goods we have but from the good we do together …. We say with Camus: ‘I should be able to love my country and still love justice.’ " – Robert F. Kennedy

{9} "Some people see things and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?’ " – George Bernard Shaw

{10} "On the day Robert Kennedy himself died, a New York Seneca, whose reservation he had visited in 1967, wrote his widow: ‘We loved him, too, Mrs. Kennedy. Loving a public official is almost unheard of, as history bears out. We trusted him. Unheard of, too, for an Indian. We had faith in him.’ Vine Deloria, Jr., the Standing Rock Sioux who wrote ‘Custer Died for Your Sins,’ observed that Kennedy’s intercession had probably discouraged federal action ‘because of his many political enemies and their outright rejection of causes he advocated.’ Still, said Deloria in a fine sentence, he was a man ‘who could move from world to world and never be a stranger anywhere.’ And Indians thought him ‘as great a hero as the most famous Indian war chiefs precisely because of his ruthlessness.’ At last, somewhere, that reputation had its advantages. ‘Indians,’ said Deloria, ‘saw him as a warrior, the white Crazy Horse’ – the great war chief of the Oglala Sious who did, Deloria said, what was best and what was for the people.’ Kennedy, Deloria concluded, ‘somehow validated obscure undefined feelings of Indian people which they had been unwilling to admit to themselves. Spiritually, he was an Indian.’"
--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Robert Kennedy and His Times

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


{1} Visions of Our Fathers

"This world and yonder world are incessantly giving birth:
every cause is a mother, its effects the child.
When the effect is born, it too becomes a cause
and gives birth to wonderous effects.
These causes are generation on generation, but it needs
a very well lighted eye to see the links in their chain."
--Jalal-ad-din Rumi; Persian Sufi poet

One of the things that I have enjoyed the most during this democratic primary has been interacting with young adults, who are participating in their first national election. I am old, and at the stage of life where it seems important to pass on what I have had the opportunity to learn in my life. Last week, one young man asked me how it is that I have been able to tell them, in a fairly accurate way, what things would take place in the days and weeks to come.
Part of the reason is, of course, because I can talk to other people who are closer to the on-going events than I am. It is important to seek out a wide range resources, including people and information, because information is a form of power.

One of these was a mentor I had when I was their age. He told me that if you study what happened yesterday, or a week, month, year, decade, or century ago, you can say what will happen tomorrow, and next week, month, year, and decade. Because in most ways, today is a consequence of yesterday, and tomorrow will thus be a consequence of today.

The only thing that can change, he taught me, are people. And if an individual or group wants to change tomorrow, it is important that they change themselves today. For in order to do more, we must be more. The opportunity to change ourselves, and thus begin to change everything around us, is offered to us each and every day.

Yet change is hard. It is always met with resistance. Individuals and groups tend to want things to stay much the same as what they are familiar with, because that is most comfortable. The tendency to want to find that comfort is the reason that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were able to "win" the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004. Many people wanted what is familiar, and as Kevin Phillips pointed out in "American Dynasty," a large number of people looked at George Bush and saw his father. More, Dick Cheney represented the "stability" of the past.
But we cannot go backwards. The current administration provides proof of the folly of trying to secure the comfort of the past. Now, let’s take a look at the future, for our country is faced with a choice between the folly of looking backwards, versuses the potential of moving forward.

{2} The Strength of Our Mothers

"I myself have no power. It’s the people behind me who have the power. …. But if you’re asking about strength, not power, then I can say that the greatest strength is gentleness.
--Tadodaho Leon Shenandoah; Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy)

When he was a community organizer in Chicago, young Barack Obama became frustrated. He had the best of intentions, but was frustrated by his inability to bring about the types of changes that he recognized were needed to improve the quality of life in the communities he served. He understood that in order to do more, he had to be more. So he went back to school, and became and attorney.

In the 2007-2208 democratic primary, we had a number of highly qualified candidates. Many of them had significant experience in domestic and foreign policy. Any one of them would have been a great improvement over either George Bush or any of the republican candidates.

The most talented of these appeared to be Senator Hillary Clinton. She ran a campaign that said her 36 years of experience would make her "ready on Day One." She was able to identify a number of important things that she would do for people. And this is generally what appeals to the public, because more often than not in Western Society, people want leaders who will do things for them.

Then, almost out of no where, Barack Obama began to be viewed as a serious challenger to Senator Clinton. His campaign was based on the need for change. And he said that when he became president, he would require the cooperation of the grass roots to achieve real change in our society.

The campaign was unique in American history. There were efforts to use events from Obama’s past against him. But these attempts failed. Some felt it was because the media was favoring him. Others believed that Obama had "fooled" his supporters. But, in fact, his strength came from the people behind him. They were responding to a power that is contrary to all Western thought.

While none can doubt that Senator Clinton sincerely wanted to bring positive changes to this country, her campaign was run by experts in the past. Obama likewise advocates change, and his campaign was run by people with the vision to change the tactics and goals for today. Young people in particular invested themselves in his campaign, and as others began to catch on, Obama came from behind to win an upset.

As expected, we see resistance, even within the party. There are those who fold their arms firmly across their chests, and say, "No!" to the Obama campaign. But there are many more who are today shaking hands with others, and saying, "Yes!" And "yes" is a more powerful idea than "no." It offers many more possibilities for us, and opens more potentials for our country.

This summer, a campaign that defines the past versus the future begins in earnest. John McCain is a fossil of the republican past. If he is elected, we will continue in the downward spiral. When he mocks Obama for wanted to end the war in Iraq, we must understand that the next link in the chain that binds McCain to the Bush-Cheney policies involves a widening of the military occupation of the Middle East.

McCain fronts for the one-eyed giant that Thomas Merton spoke of in his book "Gandhi on Non-Violence." He is a puppet of those who use science to advance the destructive forces that endanger our world. The Obama campaign balances the western advances in science with the wisdom found in the rest of the world, which "opens the door to a life in which the individual is not lost in the cosmos and in society but found in them" (Merton)

We have the opportunity to begin to make the changes today that will improve the nation tomorrow. Say, "Yes!"

"The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
the long day wanes; the slow moon climbs;
the deep moans round with many voices.
Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world."
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunday, June 01, 2008


{1} Letter from a Region of My Mind

Yesterday, the democratic party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee met to decide how to resolve the issues involving the seating of Florida and Michigan’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention. For some, the solution is unsatisfactory, and there is concern that the Clinton campaign might attempt to contest the decision at the convention. In a discussion on the Democratic Underground, my friend Tatiana said something that reminded me of a story about Senator Robert Kennedy, and I’d like to take a few moments to share it with you.

I think the story will be of interest to democrats who support Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. It has to do with the art of listening. By no coincidence, the ability to listen is a strength that both Clinton and Obama have: in her 2000 campaign, Hillary Clinton went on a "listening tour" of New York; Barack Obama learned from students of Saul Alinsky that the ability to listen was the key to community organizing.

It may be that by focusing on our ability to really listen to those who support the "other" candidate, that both Clinton and Obama supporters can find common ground. Now let’s take a look at what we should not allow to become a forgotten chapter in the remarkable life of Robert F. Kennedy.

{2} Down by the Cross

In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy became focused on the issues involved in the civil rights movement. The activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others had resulted in Kennedy’s taking some actions that had created tensions between his brother’s administration, and the democrats and republicans who advocated segregation. Many in the civil rights movement felt that the Kennedys were not doing all that they could to insure that black Americans enjoyed the rights of full citizenship.

Kennedy was becoming concerned that the northern cities would create an even more explosive situation than what was taking place in the south. Leaders like King did not have as much support among the black residents of the northern ghettoes as they had in the south. Kennedy was particularly concerned with the growth in the Nation of Islam (NOI), or Black Muslims. The NOI had been a fringe group until the emergence of Minister Malcolm X. By 1963, Malcolm was becoming one of the leading black spokesmen in America, and he did not share Martin’s non-violent philosophy.

The New Yorker published an essay by author James Baldwin, titled "Letter From a Region of My Mind." (It can be found as "Down by the Cross" in Baldwin’s book "The Fire Next Time.") The essay spoke of the sense of humiliation, hopelessness, and rage that black Americans felt. It was, at the time, considered one of the most shocking things that white Americans had read. Baldwin’s essay included descriptions of his encounter with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, and more importantly, with Malcolm X.

Kennedy had met Baldwin at a White House reception for Nobel Prize laureates. After reading the article in the New Yorker, he invited the author to a private breakfast at Hickory Hills, where he asked Baldwin to arrange for a meeting of black leaders to be held at Joseph Kennedy’s penthouse at 24 Central Park South in New York City.

{3} The Fire Next Time

On the morning of May 24, 1963, Kennedy and Burke Marshall engaged in tough negotiations with the owners of several chain stores, regarding the need to desegregate their stores in the south. By the time of the meeting with Baldwin and what he described as his "rowdy friends," both Kennedy and Marshall felt that they had made some important progress that they could report.

Baldwin’s group included Lena Horne; Harry Belafonte; Lorraine Hansberry (author of "A Raisin in the Sun"); social psychology professor Kenneth Clark; Edwin Berry (of the Chicago Urban League); Clarence Jones (King’s attorney, who would serve as a go-between for Martin and Malcolm the following year); and Jerome Smith, a young CORE field organizer, who had been involved in the Freedom Rides, and who had been beaten and jailed numerous times.
Clark and Berry had come armed with statistics and proposals that could have resulted in the meeting taking a different course. But at the beginning, Kennedy made a comment on the need for black leaders to insure the movement stayed non-violent. He mentioned that he considered the NOI to be a threat to the civil rights movement.

Jerome Smith found that insulting. He said that he felt "nauseated" from being in the same room with Kennedy. RFK turned away from Smith, in hopes of cutting him off. Hansberry said, "You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there."

Smith spoke about the dangers that the civil rights movement faced as coming from the violence that white racists inflicted upon non-violent protesters, and the failure of the federal government to insure their safety. He said that he was in the city for medical treatment for the injuries he sustained in a series of brutal beatings he had taken. But he was not sure that he could continue to be non-violent in the future. "You have no idea what trouble is," he told Kennedy. "When I pull the trigger, kiss it goodbye."

Baldwin, who was less concerned with statistics than emotions, asked Smith if he would support the US in a war against Cuba. He was obviously aware of RFK’s positions on Cuba, and wanted to make a point with Kennedy. "Never! Never!," Smith replied.

This upset Kennedy, who believed that it was a patriotic duty to support the USA in times of war. Lena Horne told him, "If you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all, because you and your brother are representative of the best that white America has to offer. If you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the street, and chaos."

Kennedy spoke of his grandfather’s experiences as an immigrant. He said that in three generations, his brother had become President of the US. Kennedy noted that he believed a black man would be elected President within 40 years. Baldwin replied that his family had been here for far more than three generations.

After three hours, the tense meeting came to an end. No statistics or proposals had been discussed. The meeting had only involved emotions.

{4} Nobody Knows My Name

As he was leaving, Clarence Jones took Kennedy aside, and said that he appreciated the Attorney General’s support in Birmingham. Kennedy said, "You watched those people attack me over Birmingham for forty minutes, and you didn’t say a word. There is no point in your saying anything now."

Harry Belafonte then said, "Of course you have done more for civil rights than anyone else."
Kennedy replied, "Why do you say this to me? Why didn’t you say this to the others?"
Belafonte responded, "I couldn’t say this to the others. It would affect my position with these people. …If I sided with you on these matters, then I would become suspect."

The following day, Baldwin told a NY Times reporter that the Attorney General was "insensitive and unresponsive." Kennedy told a friend, "They didn’t know what the laws are – they don’t know what the facts are – they don’t know what we’ve been doing, or what we’re trying to do."

{5} More Notes of a Native Son

That meeting could have caused a greater division between the Kennedy administration and the civil rights movement. But the exact opposite happened. Robert Kennedy could relate to being an invisible person, because that was often his experience as a child.

"They need to know somebody listens," he told a friend. "All the abuse the blacks have taken through the centuries, whites are just going to have to let them get out some of those feelings."
Over the next five years, as Attorney General and as a US Senator, Robert Kennedy began his own listening tour among the people who were excluded from the American dream. When we listen to his speeches from his 1968 campaign for president, it is clear that he heard, and understood, what the voices that the democratic party needed to listen to.

This included his expanding his listening skills to hear those he viewed as "the enemy." In the daybook that President Kennedy had started, and RFK continued after Dallas, he wrote: "The final lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes."

This coming week, democrats will benefit by listening to the lessons of Senator Robert Kennedy.

{6} Sources

--Michael Beran; The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the end of American Aristocracy; 1998; pages 136-138

--Richard Mahoney; Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy; 1999; pages 249-250

--Evan Thomas; Robert Kennedy: His Life; 2000; pages 243-245

--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Robert Kennedy and His Times; 1978; pages 355-360