Thursday, May 29, 2008

Burlington Debates Dropping Al Jazeera

The municipally-owned telecommunications company launched two years ago by Vermont’s largest city – Burlington, also known as the “People’s Republic” – is struggling with a divisive dispute over whether to continue airing Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour news and public affairs channel headquartered in Qatar.


Al Jazeera English was added to the Burlington Telecom line up in December 2006, shortly after the channel started airing. Since then it has become one of the three largest global English language news sources, reaching an estimated 100 million households worldwide. According to the New York Times, it has distribution deals in markets as far-flung as Portugal, Ukraine and Vietnam.


The Burlington controversy escalated after BT General Manager Chris Burns decided to drop the channel in response to “dozens” of complaints from angry customers. Only a few other US cable systems – in Ohio, Texas, and Washington, DC – currently carry it, although Al Jazeera is available via broadband portals and some public access operations.


About 75 people attended a May 27 meeting at Burlington City Hall of the two citizen committees that monitor BT management. Comments from 28 area residents ran three-to-one in favor of keeping the channel on the air. Burlington’s Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss had suggested that a “broader discussion” should take place before a final decision is made.


Those in favor of keeping Al Jazeera cited the fact that the channel is extremely popular in Israel and provides a different perspective on international events. Rep. Bill Aswad, a Burlington Democrat, said the channel gives Burlingtonians the opportunity to learn about Muslims and Islam, and that "if someone doesn't want to learn more they can switch to a different channel." One person even pointed out that the channel is virtually the only news outlet that airs unedited speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.


Those opposed argued that Al Jazeera is intolerant and endorses terrorism, and that Burlington should “shun Jew hating.” One speaker called its local carriage as an insult to “any patriotic American.” In a report on the meeting, WCAX, the state’s largest commercial TV station, noted that some people blame the network for the deaths of US soldiers. Several on both sides of the issue threatened to drop their BT subscriptions if the decision went against their position.


Several speakers compared the Middle East-based channel with Fox News, arguing that Fox’s content is a greater “threat to liberty.” Regardless of how Burlington resolves the issue, a representative of RETN, the local educational channel, said that it will continue to air Al Jazeera broadcasts.


Frustrated with their cable company Adelphia (later purchased by Comcast) and phone company Verizon, Burlington citizens voted for a municipal fiber network in 1997. Two years later, the publicly-owned Burlington Electric Department partnered with Aptus Networks to build a citywide network. Since BT’s launch in 2006 it has attracted about 2100 customers and is rapidly expanding its reach. Basic service is available at half the cost of Comcast, and provides 20 channels, Internet service, and two cent per minute local phone calls.


Channels are selected based on what the competition offers, but so far BT has also included any channel that provides free content. That policy brought Al Jazeera’s English version to the city, but there is no contract between BT and the channel. Until recently, most of the opposition has come from blogs and people outside of Burlington.


According to the Boston Globe, Al Jazeera’s presence on Burlington TV screens became an issue due to the lobbying of the Defenders Council of Vermont. “The group, with 15 to 20 members, formed last year and says its mission is to ‘educate the citizens of Vermont about the nature, reality and threat of radical Islam,’ and to ‘honor the men and women of the armed services and their families,’ the Globe reported.


“In a city that gave both ice cream mavens Ben & Jerry their start in capitalism and socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders his start in politics, the debate over Al-Jazeera was bound to be a lively one,” the newspaper added.


The City Council has the authority to decide what channels are carried but has avoided becoming involved in content issues. When some subscribers complained about the titles of adult programs being available for anyone to see, BT decided to offer adult content only to those who wanted it, blocking even the channel listing for the rest.


Local roots and accountability to the community set BT apart from private companies. Both must provided funding and space for public access channels, but Burlington Telecom goes farther. When the community asked for additional channels for live coverage of events and a video-on-demand option for local programming, BT worked to provide it.


At the public forum the debate over Al Jazeera was described by some as a free speech issue. Others argued that the US is “at war” and that the channel is “a subtle way of undermining what we take for granted.” On its website, Al Jazeera English says that its purpose is to balance “the current typical information flow by reporting from the developing world back to the West and from the southern to the northern hemisphere. The channel gives voice to untold stories, promotes debate, and challenges established perceptions.”


Greg Epler-Wood, who chairs both the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Burlington Telecommunications Advisory Committee appointed by the City Council, says another public forum will be held in June before any recommendation is made. Epler-Wood also has invited written comments either via e-mail (greg@burlingtontelecom.net) or care of Burlington Telecom, 200 Church Street, Burlington, VT 05401. In the end, BT and Mayor Kiss will make the call.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bad Vibes in Vermont’s Peaceful Valley

Satisfying as it was to watch the Nixon regime crumble – the Senate hearings were truly “must see” viewing on Public TV – I had my own dispute with the establishment to resolve in 1973. Unless I distanced myself from the youth program I’d worked hard to develop, the school board would refuse a state grant to fund it. The right thing to do was step down, I concluded. Fortunately, my boss appreciated what I’d accomplished already and offered a promotion. It meant working mainly upstate in Vermont’s beautiful Champlain Valley, but I could continue living in Bennington. There would even be an expense account generous enough to lease a new car. With a combination of regret and relief, I said “Hell, yes.”

Each week for the next year I drove north for three days, living in cheap hotels and spare bedrooms, writing grants and developing new para-professional programs. I apparently had a knack for it, and soon became a consultant on the side. Eventually, however, the arrangement grew tiring, especially the constant traveling. I needed one place to live – and a bit more intellectual stimulation. Fortunately, top administrators at the University of Vermont were impressed, and the College of Education offered an office, plus a spot in the graduate program.


Bidding farewell to Bennington and the gang, I took the offer and started a new life in northwestern Vermont. Five years and several jobs later, I returned to see how things had worked out down south. It was 1978, ten years after I first arrived in Vermont. Nixon was long gone, and Jimmy Carter was president.


The Benington Banner, my old paper, had recently reported that between 20 and 50 pounds of reportedly tainted marijuana was being sold locally. The article had prompted Bennington County State's Attorney Raymond G. Bolton to initiate a closed-door inquest. As a result, reporter Tim Powers and his co-author, an elfish 23-year-old named Woody Klein, were facing contempt citations and maybe jail for deciding to protect their sources. I was working for a newspaper again, the recently launched Vermont Vanguard Press, and it sounded like a great story.

Local police hadn't been looking for the lemon-yellow dope, possibly sprayed with the herbicide paraquat before its shipment from Mexico to Vermont. But two weeks after the story appeared a state trooper called the reporters for the names of "local drug dealers contacted by the Banner." Their refusal to provide the information had sparked the legal reaction.


Many things had changed since my time at The Banner, but the bad blood was still running pretty thick. In my day, the news had been school board fights, the village trustees, and power struggles between liberal and conservative parents. If anything, matters had gone from bad to worse. Now workers were being "poisoned" at the Globe Union battery plant and residents were feeling the effects of lead pipes around town.


Woody Klein thought the contempt charge against him might be a scare tactic. But if it wasn't, he was ready to make the trip. "The object of a free press," he told me, "is to assure the safety of the public. In this case we have to measure what privileges we would lose by revealing sources." Pretty spunky, I thought. He’d also been tracking the lead poisoning among Globe Union workers, and was worried about the health effects of the poisoned dope – possible liver, lung and kidney damage.


Powers was concerned about the cops. "People I talk to say there's been an awful lot of heat this year," he said, running down minor busts, a tally that showed prosecutor Bolton hadn't hit on much but users. Yet the paraquat scare was enough to give police a rationale for more raids. The final irony came in Powers' follow up report: separate lab tests of some golden maryjane from Bennington showed that it wasn't poisoned after all, just dyed to increase its price. The dealers, who temporarily pulled back on sales, had denied the contamination from the start.


I interviewed Bolton in his cramped office below the district court chamber. "Finding this marijuana is part of our overall effort,” he explained. “Of course, it's more important than small amounts would be otherwise." But he wouldn't guarantee anything without the names of local dealers. "This information can't be obtained by state agents. You know, people wholesaling drugs won't talk to the police." After three years on the job, he was adamant. "The Supreme Court says that there is no privilege which allows a reporter to withhold sources when criminal activity is involved. These reporters say it's better to write about an activity than to do anything about it."


Plenty of Benningtonians thought the real problem was Bolton. Even George Sleeman, an old nemesis and still superintendent, rapped the prosecutor for making vandalism a low priority. In the years since my departure, teen crime had reached epidemic proportions. Banner publisher Kelton Miller said, "Bolton's no great crusader, either with the Banner or drug dealing."


Surrounded by old photos of himself as a young Vermont legislator, the publisher talked about the case. "Bolton claims federal law supersedes Vermont law, which is more liberal on sources. The Vermont Supreme Court says a reporter must reveal sources, unless the information is available elsewhere." Miller wasn't fighting for absolute privilege, but he was ready to appeal. "If Bolton is right then newspapers will be on shaky ground whenever they look at any quasi or illegal activity. People would become reluctant to talk."


Miller did have one regret; that the issue might be tested on a "grubby case." In the end it wasn't. Bolton eventually dropped the charges.


Driving around town, I looked out the window and thought: damn, this used to be a gorgeous valley. Right next door to Mt. Anthony and the Bennington Battle Monument, the area loomed large in American Revolutionary lore. By the time I arrived in 1968 a low-level sprawl had already stretched out of Bennington Village toward North Bennington. They called it "the Flats." Yet Bennington was still essentially a clean and rolling space outside the urban web.


A grim new reality crept in as I tooled along the just-completed beltline. This place was being re-tailored for suburban growth. The new road was a prerequisite, a bypass for travelers from New York State and other Vermont communities. Once the first section was finished and the valley was covered with ramps and connectors, "obstructionists" had risen in horror. Their leader was Harvey Carter, the Republican lawyer turned Democrat environmentalist who had long ago recommended me for the Banner job. Launching a campaign to stop "Super 7," Carter had succeeded in halting construction. But that left Bennington with a road going nowhere.

Carter’s law partner Marshall Witten, another old friend and still a Republican, was meanwhile leading an attack on the proposed Ramada Inn scheduled to go up near "terminal beltline." Easy road access had jacked up land values outside the village and developers were ready to pounce. Witten spoke for local restaurant and motel owners guarding their downtown commercial interests. But the cause was lost. Next door to the Ramada site, construction was underway on a shopping center. The punch line was that the whole shebang would sit on a flood plain. Even though a flood channel had been built the area could be wiped out if the water levels rose substantially on the Roaring Branch and Furnace Brook. I imagined shoppers rowing to their cars and the whole project swept along into the new state office building down the road.

But this half-baked development was no fantasy and even I had played a part in decimating the peaceful valley. As a muckraking reporter I’d targeted the village trustees. They didn't do much, but did know one thing – they weren't hot on growth. Arrogantly concluding that they were out of touch and behind the times, I set out to discredit them. My weapons were a tape recorder and their own words.


Unfamiliar with local issues I’d decided to bring the recorder to meetings. But instead of putting the discussions in perspective I transcribed what was said. In print, the result was devastating: their meandering dialogues made the group look ridiculous.


Years later J. Duncan Campbell, one of the Town officials who had encouraged my attacks, still believed I had done the right thing. "You turned the light on when you taped the trustees,” he said, “and you showed people what a member of the counterculture was like," I wasn’t so sure. My exposure of the Village "fathers" as a group of backward, disorganized incompetents had helped convince the public that it was time for consolidated local government. The village had been “merged” into oblivion.


Looking back, I regretted it. Too inexperienced to realize what was happening – and blinded by my supposed power – I had been manipulated, becoming an unwitting accomplice in a campaign by local business leaders to set loose suburban growth.


Part Eight of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir.


Next: Signs of Contamination

Monday, May 26, 2008

Citizen Nader: From Prophet to Punch Line

When Ralph Nader announced his fourth bid for the US presidency on NBC in February 2004, shortly after Howard Dean’s insurgent Democratic campaign imploded, he described his goal as building a “second front” in the fight to defeat George W. Bush. “Can we tolerate four more years of Bush,” he asked rhetorically, answering with a no. In a June letter to contributors, he wrote, “No one wants to defeat George W. Bush more than I do."


Yet, the official reason he entered the race was John Kerry’s refusal to negotiate with him, agreeing to adopt some of Nader’s positions in exchange for a promise not to run. Nader spent much of that campaign drawing contrasts with both Bush and Kerry on health insurance, a living wage, global trade, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “Kerry chooses to stay the course with the corporate and military wing of the Democratic Party,” he charged.


Now 74 years old and running for the fifth time, he argues that if he doesn’t the Republican and Democratic candidates won’t move their platforms toward talking about his issues – corporate control, livable wages and consumer protection. But that didn’t happen in 2004. Instead, it turned Democrats into the electoral equivalent of abusive hallway monitors, waiting for any excuse to report minor infractions by a star student now classified as a political delinquent. Rather than pushing Kerry to the left, his run prompted Democrats to push back.


In the end, he didn’t get the chance to participate in the presidential debates and had no visible impact on the campaign. Even though he was on the ballot in 34 states, he received less than half a million votes, a mere 0.4 percent. Four years earlier, he got almost six times as many, close to three million votes.


There is no doubt that Nader has made enormous contributions as a consumer advocate, beginning with his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which tackled automobile safety issues. Inspired by Nader, young activists joined him on subsequent projects, becoming known as "Nader's Raiders." Public Citizen, founded in 1971, grew into an effective monitoring group that helped to pass the Safe Water Drinking and Freedom of Information Acts. It also prompted the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumer Product Safety Commission.


That said, his move into presidential politics has been far less effective. When he ran in both the GOP and Democratic New Hampshire primaries in 1992, he polled only 3,000 in each, out of a total of 350,000 votes cast. In 1996, as the Green Party candidate, he received 685,000 votes, or 0.8 percent. The 2000 race produced his best showing, but some blamed him for helping Bush win.


Asked recently by MSNBC's Tim Russert if his latest run could prevent a Democratic victory, Nader replied, "Not a chance. If the Democrats can’t landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, and emerge in a different form." He’s probably right about his potential impact. But the real question is whether running will clarify anything, or instead help to discredit the positions he espouses if his vote is again disappointing. Jay Leno recently joked about his drawing power. “Obama spoke before 75,000 people at a rally in Oregon,” Leno noted. “75,000. That’s the equivalent of 75,000 Ralph Nader rallies.”


Nader and his supporters claim that he runs in order to get different views a hearing in the mainstream media. What views? The size of the defense budget, for example, and the need to use some of that money to fix domestic problems like health care, education and public works. Yet his four previous attempts to do this have failed, providing both the media and “mainstream” politicians with an excuse to claim that such an agenda has little popular support. It could even be argued that Nader’s presence allows the Democratic candidate to position him/herself between a Left agenda and the Right-wing extremism of the Republicans.


The larger reason for Nader’s campaigns, as he explains it, is to move the US toward a “diverse, multiple-choice, multiple-party democracy, the way they have in Western Europe and Canada." That’s why, although he sometimes acknowledges that a Democratic president would be somewhat different than a Republican, the basic thrust of all Nader campaigns has been that both big parties are essentially the same, their candidates just tweedledumb and tweedledumber.


Will his independent candidacy – especially if it disappoints expectations – set the stage for such a paradigm shift? The Electoral College process, restrictive ballot access rules, closed presidential debates, and government campaign funds make it virtually impossible for either an independent or a “third party” to mount a credible challenge. A Constitutional amendment – not a very likely development – would be just the beginning.


Candidates outside the two “major parties” can of course have an impact on the outcome. For example, they can deny a candidate the popular vote in enough states to influence the final electoral tally. That’s the rap on Nader’s 2000 campaign. But the best example is 1912, when former president Teddy Roosevelt received 27 percent as a third-party candidate. By splitting the Republican vote, he helped Democrat Woodrow Wilson become president. On the other hand, Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992 and yet no one can prove his presence helped Bill Clinton or hurt George Bush.


At this point, Nader clearly can be classified as a perennial candidate, a club whose mascot is surely Harold Stassen, the Minnesota governor who ran nine times. At first, in 1948 and 1952, he was considered a serious contender. By 1992, however, he‘d become a source of late night TV jokes. The club also includes the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas (six times), who did influence Roosevelt’s New Deal; Eugene V. Debs (five), whose 1920 run while in federal prison netted 913,664 votes, the most ever for a Socialist Party candidate; Prohibition Party candidate Early Dodge (six); Communist Party USA leader Gus Hall (four); Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy (five), whose effective 1968 campaign influenced Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek another term; and Lyndon LaRouche (eight), a political cult leader who also once campaigned from behind bars.


Nader is also sounding a bit cranky these days. At a recent campaign stop, he didn’t just downplay the value of computers and the Internet. He lectured his audience about good old days before the Information Age. Nader doesn't use Google; in fact, he doesn't have a computer. His means of communication is an Underwood typewriter. That might appeal to the 20 million households without Internet access, mostly people over 65 or with no education beyond high school. But since Nader gets almost no TV or print coverage, they’ll probably never find out.


How will candidate Nader be remembered? So far, he hasn’t achieved the impact of either Norman Thomas or Gene McCarthy. In 2008, he runs the risk of running behind Bob Barr, a former Republican running as the Libertarian candidate. A Zogby poll recently put them both around three and four percent, but the Election Day outcome could be considerably lower. The danger is that Nader may become another Stassen, or worse, the godfather of a Left-wing cult that persists in believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, a failed prophecy: You just have to keep running until the voters wake up and desert the big parties en masse.


It’s a tragic loss for the progressive movement. By keeping the focus on his analysis and projects rather than his candidacy, Nader could have become a formidable elder statesman, possibly even a member of some Democratic cabinet. Now he’ll be lucky to avoid being a punch line.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nixon: Lessons of an Electronic Messiah

During his five and a half years as president there were many Richard Nixons. Spiro Agnew, his vice-president until a kick-back scandal forced a resignation, was Nixon as ruthless avenger, brimming over with aggression and righteous indignation. The White House was a separate entity, the disembodied voice of the tight-lipped manager. His press secretary was Nixon as offensive fullback, moving into enemy territory with broken-field running, machine-like action without reflection. Values were spread through proxies who seemed – until the Administration became a public conspiracy – like many independent voices.

Nixon understood that propaganda must not look organized, and yet must have a unity in its goals. This idea owes much to advertising. It assumes that people experience only the dissociated surfaces of events. The fragmentation of both commercial TV programming and news reporting tends to atomize thought. Attempts to deal with many distinct messages, each isolated from the others, leads to a robotic abstraction of only the kernels that seem to fit in with prior experience. This classifying, categorizing, selecting out aspects of immediate use, those that perhaps threaten, the familiar, or those presented in a familiar dialect, tends to rigidify assumptions.


Atomizing also prevents a viewer from comprehending "big pictures," the trends and relationships that give a larger meaning to individual actions. The ability to see the whole is gradually lost; most information “consumers” see only the parts in play. Thus, for many years, people failed to recognize that the White House equaled Nixon, or that Spiro Agnew, Ron Zeigler, Melvin Laird, William Kleindeinst, John Mitchell and Richard Nixon actually spoke with one voice. They were a determined team playing the longest Superbowl in TV history.


Better than most, Nixon knew how to use mass media institutions as tools of power. After all, they were already careening down the new information highway. Most reporters lacked both a sense of involvement in the affairs they reported or witnessed, and a commitment to a clear set of values. By the end of the 1960s mainstream media outlets had become impersonal structures whose means determined their movements.


Dispatched to reform media for the uses of the State, Agnew won considerable support for his attack on the "distortion" of news. He didn't call his targets "advocacy journalists," but in pointing the finger at an "effete corps of impudent snobs" he essentially meant writers who preferred the discussion of ideas over the recitation of facts. The call for more "objectivity" was actually a rejection of ideology.


The Nixon Administration used a grab bag of weapons. Newsmen found themselves jailed for failing or refusing to disclose sources of information to the courts. Private organizations such as the Twentieth Century Fund established themselves as monitors of the news, to the chagrin of professionals. Even more threatening to corporate owners, the President outlined plans to introduce legislation holding local television stations accountable for all their network-originated broadcasts. License renewals would depend, to a great extent, on what Nixon's director of the Office of Telecommunications Clay T. Whitehead called "ideological plugola." Although a bill offering to trade extended licensing periods for "objective" obedience never became law, the goal was clear: editorial responsibility to "correct imbalance or consistent bias in the networks." According to Whitehead, "Who else but management can or should correct so-called professionals who confuse sensationalism with sense and who dispense elitist gossip in the guise of news analysis?"


After more than two decades in public life, Nixon knew his audience well. Millions watched him on January 20, 1973 as he delivered a sermon he’d rehearsed for years. In his second inaugural address, Nixon told the viewers (aka public) to push thoughts of "those who find everything wrong with America and very little right with it" out of their minds, to forget dissent and war in Vietnam. He urged, in short, that people forget much of the recent past.


Instead, he recommended a different preoccupation – responsibility. Denying that each man is his brother's keeper, he appealed to individualism: "Let each of us ask not just what government can do for me, but what can I do for myself?" Concern for others was a manifestation of the "condescending policies of paternalism," he argued. The goal was to become elite competitors.


Years later, in a letter to his wife, Gordon Liddy explained: "The young should be raised in harmony with nature. Nature is elitist. By definition, not everyone can be a member of an elite – but it is of the nature of men to try."


By the time the Senate formed a committee to investigate the Watergate burglary in 1973 democratization of Nixon's ethic was well advanced. "Law and order" was consistent with previous assertions. But democratization of values is usually accompanied by the rejection of the monarch. Thus, this would-be king began to face resistance. Impoundment of federal funds led to work stoppages, government reorganization produced instability, and central leadership through information control threatened anonymity. Such developments conflicted with the fundamental laws of the government and media bureaucracies.


The US looked in some ways as if it was replicating the political degradation of Rome. In 44 BC, having crossed the Rubicon and routed Pompey, Julius Caesar became dictator of the world's most powerful empire. Although the new monarch effected a reorganization of local administration, his "vulgar scheming for the tawdriest mockeries of personal worship", as H.G. Wells put it, became a silly and shameful record of his rule. The air buzzed with talk of the Senate, democracy, and the proletariat. The popular "comitia," the gathering of tribes for public votes, didn’t often reflect the feelings of the masses. Elite clubs were joined by most eligible voters. Politicians depended upon usurers and the clubs. The sham of democracy forced the cheated and suppressed to use other methods of expression: strikes and insurrection.


Caesar's rule lasted only about four years – less even than Nixon’s – and ended in assassination by his “friends” and supporters when his aspirations to power and greatness became intolerable. In Wells’ words, he was finally "beset in the senate....the scene marks the complete demoralization of the old Roman governing body." The fall of this dictator, about 2000 years prior to Nixon's resignation, was essentially a failure of the Roman republic to sustain unity, as well as a failure of Roman citizenship, robbed by its rigidities of inner spirit.


Rome’s prosperous era lasted only about 200 years. The United States had reached the same milestone when Richard Nixon fell.


Part Seven of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir.

Next:
Bad Vibes in the Peaceful Valley

Friday, May 23, 2008

Reality Check in the Nixon Era

For a while I had an intriguing friend in Bennington, a classic love-hate relationship that went on for several years. At times he seemed pretentious and egotistical. But he was also wildly free. In the early 1960s he’d emerged as an artist, then briefly run a company in the area. During that period, he purchased a huge house, installed an organ, held off-the-hook parties, cultivated flowers in a formal garden, and created a seductive environment that could fulfill the fantasies of hundreds of people at a time.

While working for The Banner, I’d written a profile of the artist as a retired revolutionary, “relieved to get out of the spotlight” yet eager to see what was next. Two years later, he got tired of waiting. His idea was to bring together the emerging alternative culture of southwestern Vermont by opening a nightspot behind his downtown boutique. He set about creating a unique cultural space, a warm candle-lit club decorated with Indian draperies and offering entertainment that ranged from live music, light shows, and dance nights to a film series on the theme of “the unknown.”

It was intense and engaging, but not very lucrative or destined to last. He gradually drifted into a fantasy world, a state of intermittent delusion that made him difficult to reach. And even if he hadn’t flown off to “the fourth world” of his imagination for a while, my pockets were empty after several months spent writing, helping with the project, and “looking within.” I needed a real job. Fortunately, a Department of Labor contractor was hiring. In March I became a “manpower” employment counselor, assigned to build a local office and help high school dropouts find work.


Daily contact with poor families, social workers, and local businesses quickly re-anchored me in “normal” life. I’d meet with the teens, helping them to talk through problems and plans. It was disheartening to see how little freedom they thought they had, and how restricted were their hopes. The girls, some already mothers at 16, mainly wanted to be secretaries. Most of the boys imagined becoming mechanics. I learned to empathize, to sense how they felt, and sometimes help.


The new challenge spurred my own recovery. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted in the long run, but at least I felt alive and relatively stable again. Things were looking up. I had income and prospects for the future. What’s next? I wondered. Buying a house? Exactly. A local real estate agent had the perfect place, a cute two-story near Bennington College. It had three rooms upstairs perfect for rental, and a back shed we transformed into a sauna.


Two friends took the in-law apartment, a handyman/draft evader living underground and his craftswoman partner. Good times rolled, full of spontaneous happenings, lazy sauna evenings, psychedelic weekends, and much deep talk. Sitting around the dinner table, debating politics and winter weather and the craziness of the outside world, it felt as if we were creating our own community.


In that larger world, trying to help some of its victims, I showed talent for counseling and developing a base. The work and training contractor provided more money to add an adult program. The task was the same – help the unemployed get jobs and education. By the fall, when I’d built up the project enough to deserve an expanded office, The Banner ran an article.


The following spring I ran for the local school board and set up a youth center connected with my job. Both projects hit roadblocks, however. The school board, which had to accept a grant I’d obtained to create a vocational training center, wanted the money but didn’t want me. I was becoming a liability to my own organization. Running for office against a conservative mom and a popular local pharmacist named Oakley Frost also turned out to be a mistake. When Election Day rolled around I was beaten badly.


At the time, mid-1972, it looked on the surface like Richard Nixon was riding high – an historic visit to China, an Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union, an end to the Vietnam War on the horizon, and then a landslide victory that fall over George McGovern in the presidential election. But appearances were deceiving. Despite manipulating public perceptions for decades, electability wasn’t enough. He was about to be exposed.


In June 1972, operatives working for the Committee to Re-elect the President were caught during a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. Within hours one of the “masterminds,” G. Gordon Liddy, attempted to shred all related documents. Two days later, Nixon’s press secretary called it a “third rate burglary.” But the damage was done, and two years later Nixon resigned in disgrace.


According to Douglas Hallett, a White House staff assistant to Charles Colson, the Watergate scandal “was an almost organic outgrowth of a White House peopled by competitive political animals who were rewarded in direct proportion to their expressions of fear, suspicion and paranoia."


Hallett worked closely with Colson, who said once that he would "walk over my grandmother" to assure Richard Nixon a second term as President. Hallett felt that Colson, a dirty tricks expert, "was a man without ethical compass; there was an absence of fixed direction and conviction. He was proud of having worked his way up from practically nothing, and regarded himself as the living embodiment of the American Dream."


Hallett’s portrait of Nixon was even more chilling: "Awkward remarks popped up constantly like his 'This is a great day for France' comment at President Pompidou's funeral or his 'Do you like your job?' question to a policeman who had suffered an accident during one of Nixon's Florida campaign tours and was awaiting an ambulance.


“Once, a woodcarver was ushered into the Oval Office to present the President with a chair he had fashioned from a single piece of wood. When Nixon sat down in the chair, according to one of those present, it collapsed into pieces. Picking himself off the floor, the President asked, as if nothing had happened, 'Well, how do you go about doing this kind of work?' Most memorable of all, at least for me, was shaking hands with Nixon. Each time I did, I had the eerie, even frightening feeling that nobody was there; face-to-face, hands clasped, yet no feeling, no feeling at all."


Staffed by ethically-challenged administrators, and led by a President who appeared drained of real emotion, the administration found coercive methods – a drive for negative power – the “rational” solution in a pervasive atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Nixon had been more than willing to make any sacrifices necessary to win the highest office in the land. In many ways he was a model of the “rational manager.” Dedicated to the practical, to the need for discipline and sacrifice, constantly monitoring and evaluating his own actions, and obsessed with his image, he was an “electronic messiah” who exploited mass media in a search for "greatness," his euphemism for ever-escalating production and continued dissemination of the American Dream.


Nixon made frequent use of slogans – the silent majority, peace with honor – and key words. Three concepts were linked: greatness, sacrifice, and responsibility. During the Nixon era, mass consciousness was saturated with this formula for "the good life." A "good" citizenry begins by shouldering responsibility, welcoming – even thriving upon – its sacrifices, and finally, through this effort and pain, attains greatness. Even after his "assassination,” those steps remained American facts of life, the “way” of the electronic messiah.


Part six of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir

Next: Lessons of an Electronic Messiah

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fragile Paradise: Breakdown at Bennington

Despite the state of the world as the 1960s ended, life in Vermont felt manageable and safe for a while. Juggling two lives – hippie by night, journalist and shutterbug by day – I became relatively comfortable with the contradiction. My wife Kat, a local girl I’d met at Syracuse, landed a job at a boutique launched by a designer who resembled Rasputin and briefly put us under his spell. He hosted elaborate happenings at the Victorian mansion he owned nearby, and we became close collaborators on various counter-cultural projects for the next few years.

In what seemed at the time like a brilliant career move, I changed jobs in 1970 – from local newspaper reporter to Director of Publications and Public Information at one of the most exclusive schools in the country. But Bennington College turned out to be a cauldron for my discontent. Barely more than a student myself, I often felt like a sellout. Creature comforts – a new home, endless parties, a private darkroom – couldn’t compensate for the fact that I was confused and intermittently depressed. Retreating from reality, I spent hours in my darkroom and at my drafting table, working with prints and abstract art that only briefly numbed the pain.

To make matters worse, the college wasn’t the radical enclave it appeared to be. It was an insular place full of hidden hierarchies and pretentious poseurs. My job was basically to perpetuate the illusion. At the commencement ceremonies in June, I shared my doubts with Kurt Vonnegut, invited to address the graduates. Someday I hoped to become a “serious” writer, I told him, and was worried about becoming a worthless PR flak. Don’t sweat it, he replied. He’d done the same thing at General Electric. Even press releases could help to learn the craft.

Temporarily reassured, I set worries aside for the summer. But when the students returned, so did my discomfort. The issue that set it off was a proposal for educational reform drafted by several faculty members. They called it The Plan. Arguing that Bennington’s growth should end, it called for closing the Development Office, electing the President, and creating an organic community in which teacher-students and student-teachers worked together as equals. Of course, the proposed Performing Arts Center on the drawing board for several years would have to be scrapped, and there would be no need for a job like mine.

It sounded extreme, but fit in well with the overall mood on campuses across the country. Everywhere you went there were discussions about pollution, population, women’s liberation, natural foods, and resisting the draft. You couldn’t visit Bennington without hearing or seeing phrases like “Man is an endangered species” and “We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.” At commencement, Vonnegut put it this way: “The majority of people who rule us, who have our money and power, are lawyers or military men. The lawyers want to talk our problems out of existence. The military men want us to find the bad guys and put bullets through their brains. These are not always the best solutions – particularly in the fields of sewage disposal and birth control.”

The times were urgent, so I decided that the upcoming issue of Quadrille, the school’s quarterly journal, should examine what people with power and money were doing to the environment and our lives. It would also consider some of the alternatives, many of which were being discussed on campus. Thus, when asked to include The Plan, I eagerly agreed, pending approval by my supervisors, the Development Director and Bennington President Edward J. Bloustein. Both seemed un-phased and said OK. Bloustein, a legal scholar who bragged that he couldn’t be provoked, even agreed to write a response. But as the publication date approached, he changed his mind.

“What did he say to you?” One of the authors asked when I gave him the bad news. “I didn’t speak to him directly,” I explained, “but my boss said he didn’t have time to write a response and that we’ll probably have a full airing in next Spring. He also told me it would do no good to approach the President directly. Like beating a dead horse, he said.”

“A fine thought,” the teacher replied. “Well, it’s censorship as far as I’m concerned. Ed’s been pulling this kind of thing for too long. I think this deserves a galley.”

Two decades before the Internet, galleys were the only means of rapid campus communication, basically mimeographed viewpoints placed in student and faculty mailboxes. This particular galley turned out to be more of a demand. Charging the president with censorship, it called on him to reverse the decision and explain himself. At the bottom, I added a brief note urging further dialogue without taking sides.

Bloustein shot back with a galley of his own. The magazine wasn’t “a campus journal of any and all opinion,” he proclaimed, and The Plan wouldn’t be published because it was “too partisan and too polemical.” Evidently, he could be provoked.

It didn’t end there. Over the next weeks, other galleys revealed that bonds were being floated to finance new construction and tuition fees would increase next year. Apparently, the school would be paying for its expansion for decades. When one of The Plan’s author’s received word that his teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed, students surrounded the president’s office. Bloustein left through a window, then issued another galley.

Ultimately, I got a pink slip. By then I didn’t care. While shooting photos at a benefit performance by Carol Channing in Boston, I’d reached the conclusion that I’d become a hack. Returning to Vermont, I vaguely sensed what I had to do. On the surface it looked as if I had everything – a good job, lovely wife, nice home, and promising future. Who in his right mind would throw all that away? But I wasn't in my right mind, and something had to give.

A few days later I went to work, strolled into a field, and stayed there for hours, broken and lost. When I walked back toward the campus I knew that I couldn't return to work as usual. The next days passed in a haze. I wandered aimlessly, crashing at night wherever someone would take me in. For several weeks I hovered on the verge of a breakdown. At one point I sat for hours, completely still, in the middle of the student Commons building, determined not to move until someone noticed me. It was as if I had completely run out of steam.

In the Commons a few days later, I noticed a woman laying out strange-looking cards. When I asked what they were, she said the word Tarot. Judith was an ethereal enigma who could see that I needed help and was compassionate enough to offer a place to stay. She provided tea, a copy of Steppenwolf, and Tarot readings whenever I wanted. The cards were kept in a silk scarf, as if they were holy relics to be treated with reverent care.

For several years, I'd been essentially without a spiritual compass. Catholicism had never rung true, and once I stopped going through the motions I saw no reason to replace my lost faith with another. If I had a philosophy of life, it was some sort of middle-class hedonism, spiced with grass and black light. As much as I was able, I let that – plus sex and rock music – be my religion. But through Judith I discovered a different way to view reality. Her gentle spiritualism touched my heart and provided a way to see life through the eyes of synchronicity, metaphor, and intuition. Those days in the woods rescued my soul.

Next: Reality Check in the Nixon Era

Friday, May 16, 2008

Chicago, COINTELPRO & the War at Home

The Chicago Eight defendants, activist leaders of several groups, couldn’t agree on much -- even lunch. But they did share the opinion that their country was on the wrong path. Responsive government, not rule by unaccountable elites – that was what they, and many of us who joined them in rebellion, desperately wanted. “The demonstrations in Chicago represented a demand to be heard in decisions affecting millions of lives,” I explained in a 1969 editorial column for the Bennington Banner.

Obviously, such temerity had to be punished. It didn’t take long. On October 28, newspapers across the country announced an outrage that seemed unimaginable in late 20th century America. Judge Julius Hoffman had ordered one of the defendants, Black Panther leader Bobbie Seale, to be chained, bound and gagged in open court. As Abbie Hoffman, one of Seale’s co-defendants, bluntly put it, "the law-and-order apes and this senile dinosaur we call a government have flipped out.”

I appreciated Abbie’s style. Already a radical icon, he challenged middle-class myopia and police state tactics with outrageous theatrics. Busted ten times in one year, he was targeted for threatening the establishment with brilliant insights and pyrotechnic eloquence. He was also a hot property, paid by Random House to sit in an office and write down whatever occurred to him. The reason was obvious: millions of young people like me were buying what he had to say.

His first book, Revolution for the Hell of It, had chronicled a march on the Pentagon and money-burning at the stock exchange, and provided "free advice" on how to make a revolution without spending a cent. Now, with Woodstock Nation, he offered an epic monologue on Chicago, the Woodstock festival, Yippie philosophy, and the growing pains of the new society he envisioned. A manifesto for the emerging counterculture, its irreverent tone left "straight" readers in the dark. But many others got the message.

On the back cover, he brought home the anti-capitalist thrust in a phrase: Steal this book.

Hip to Abbie's drawing power, his publisher rushed the book’s publication within a month of its completion. They were underwriting the raucous reflections of a self-proclaimed revolutionary before his expected martyrdom. Suspecting that his celebrity power might not last long, he seized the chance. A publishing contract, press conferences, even an appearance on The Tonight Show; all were means of propelling the movement.

The Chicago riots had moved thousands from discontent to open rebellion. "The revolution is about coming together in a struggle for change," Abbie explained. "It is about the destruction of a system based on bosses and competition and the building of a new community based on people and cooperation." And he didn't want people to just talk about change. He wanted them to "go out and do it." Oddly, the basic message had something in common with the rhetoric of Barry Goldwater. In 1964, the conservative GOP candidate for president had proclaimed that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." To which Abbie now added, "The style of our struggle might look strange, but the spirit is time-honored -- Victory or Death."

Throughout the fall, true believers tried to end the war by “bringing it back home.” In October, rallies across the country called for a “moratorium.” In November, a quarter of a million people converged in the Capitol. But it was hard to keep the faith when the police could storm into an apartment with guns blazing, as Chicago cops did when they killed Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in early December.

The deaths of Hampton and Clark confirmed the prediction of Eldridge Cleaver. The best-seller author and Black Panther minister of information had warned, “A point has been reached where a line just has to be drawn, because the power structure of this country has been thoroughly exposed. There is no right on their side. We know that they're moving against people for political purposes. There's a favorite line of mine. It says that there is a point where fortune ends and cowardice begins. Everybody is scared of the pigs, of the power structure. They come in with their clubs and their guns, and they will exterminate you, if that's what it takes to carry out the will of their bosses.”

As the decade ended, even rock and roll couldn’t provide a refuge. Rolling Stones drummer Brian Jones was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool that summer, one of the first drug-related rock star deaths of the era. In December, during a Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, fans were beaten and one person was stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel. Another man drowned in a nearby canal and two people were crushed by a runaway car.

And where was the mainstream press as the American Dream turned into a nightmare? Largely oblivious or trapped in denial. Perhaps most owners, editors and gatekeepers were simply too intimidated to level with the country. After all, Vice President Spiro Agnew had accused network television news departments of bias and distortion and urged viewers to lodge complaints. But they needn’t have worried. The government’s main target was the alternative press.

Immediately upon Nixon’s election, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered his field offices to “institute a detailed survey concerning New Left-type publications being printed and circulated in your territories on a regular basis.” Along with the Cambodia bombing, another secret war had been declared. Over the next few years, hundreds of alternative journalists were monitored, assaulted, subpoenaed and arrested. Newspapers and radio stations were bombed, burned and ransacked. Government agents not only infiltrated papers, but also spread destructive disinformation.

The FBI was particularly interested in the Black Panthers and their newspaper, a tabloid that reached more than 100,000 readers in the late 60s. After talking with federal agents, their shipper dramatically increased his rates. In 1970, a San Francisco warehouse where back issues were stored mysteriously burned down. But the Bureau wasn’t the only agency involved. From the CIA to the IRS and FCC, the whole federal alphabet worked with local police forces and the White House in what was later exposed as COINTELPRO, a major counterintelligence program designed to disrupt and discredit radical movements and their media.

Since the Bureau reasoned that all dissident groups had “terrorist” potential, almost any tactic could be justified. After President Nixon circulated a plan to expand the operation in 1970, FBI field offices received word to "immediately institute an aggressive policy of developing new productive informants who can infiltrate the ranks of terrorist organizations, their collectives, communes and staffs of their underground newspapers."

Violent harassment by police and vigilantes escalated. Newspaper offices were firebombed in Los Angeles, Milwaukie, and Seattle. In New Haven, the copy editor and other staff of View from the Bottom were arrested on drug charges, a common government tactic. Like many alternative publications, the paper soon folded under the pressure. In Houston, not only was an underground paper called Space City bombed, but also the radio transmitter of KPFT, a new Pacifica station. It was actually bombed twice in 1970, the first recorded cases of a US radio station being blasted off the air. A former Klu Klux Klan member eventually admitted to the crime, but some suspected that the FBI was also involved. Ironically, the attack attracted enough attention and donations to get KPFT back in action by 1971.

And where was the mass media when all this was going on? As far as COINTELPRO was concerned, blissfully ignorant in most cases. Sometimes they even supported the crackdown.

Next: Breakdown at Bennington

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fragile Paradise: Moving toward Advocacy

Like a rising tide that had reached its limit, the roaring sixties crashed to a climax with a wrenching change of direction. The decade that began with Camelot dreams ended with an eruptive rush of anxiety and fear. As racial tensions smoldered in Malaysia and the Soviet Union cracked down in Czechoslovakia, there were military coups in Syria, Lybia, Somalia, and the Sudan, border clashes between Chinese and Soviet troops, race and campus riots across the United States, and dozens of airplane hijackings. In Northern Ireland, the bloody era known as The Troubles began. In a way, that label said it all.

Ensconced in the White House, President Nixon talked about “peace with honor” in Vietnam but ordered the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia. Between 1969 and 1973, the US Air Force dropped half a million tons of bombs on the country and killed someone with every ton, drove rural people into the cities, destroyed the agricultural system, and caused a famine that was later blamed on the Khmer Rouge. The US would soon begin withdrawing troops, but the war in Southeast Asia was widening.

Closer to home, confrontations between power and the people intensified – even famous people like Muhammad Ali, convicted for refusing to serve in the Army, and Timothy Leary, sentenced to 10 years in prison for marijuana possession. In May, when thousands of protesters tried to stop the University of California from building dorms on the site of People’s Park in Berkeley, Ronald Reagan, California’s first movie star governor, placed the city under martial law, complete with riot police and tear gas-spraying helicopters. An FBI memo later revealed his plan to wage “psychological warfare” on the state’s college campuses.

Although far from the action in a small New England town, covering school boards and ribbon cutting ceremonies, I was frustrated and angry. Vietnam was in flames, violence and repression threatened to destroy the country, and there I was, seeing it happen but doing nothing. Then I remembered my high school hero Lincoln Steffens. As a journalist I could do more than report; I could move and convince. Somehow I needed to combine observation with advocacy, to lay out “shameful” facts in a way that would ignite civic conscience and the impulse to change.

There was no local anti-war movement, except for a few privileged college students who kept their protests on the campus. But Bennington had its own forms of injustice, and it didn’t take much to uncover them. Not far from downtown, for example, poor families lived in squalor. Local ghettos had existed for years, neglected and out of sight. I decided to make them impossible to ignore.

My first expose, published on Memorial Day weekend in 1969, was called “Welcome to Carrigan Lane.” Illustrated with photos of tenants and grotesque living conditions – broken pipes, no running water, roofs with gaping holes, un-insulated walls, and all manner of hazards that endangered children – the story let the poor speak for themselves. But it also pointed out why such conditions had been allowed to fester for so long: Bennington had no housing codes.

The response was exactly what I had hoped – widespread outrage and enough public pressure to force village officials to act. A study committee quickly decided that minimum standards and effective enforcement were essential solutions. It would take a year for results to emerge, but my muckraking had sparked a local reform movement with the potential to improve the living conditions of the powerless.

Every day the teletype brought more evidence of change. Less than 200 miles to the south in Greenwich Village the struggle for homosexual rights was raging, sparked by days of fighting between police and patrons outside a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. It became known as the Stonewall Rebellion. At times it felt like the country was descending into a maelstrom of violence. In Baton Rouge, the National Guard was called out to handle racial conflict. In York, Pennsylvania’s “White Rose City,” once the capitol of revolutionary America, Mayor Charles Robertson handled a riot after a young black woman was murdered by distributing ammunition to white gang members. "Kill as many niggers as you can," he allegedly told them.

California’s Zodiac killer was winding down his spree, but actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered in her Beverly Hills home. The world would soon meet Charles Manson and his bizarre cult followers. Almost as if fueled by the violence in the air, Ohio’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire.

There were two hopeful and unprecedented events that summer. On July 20, Neil Armstrong took his legendary "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the moon, and several weeks later, more than half a million people gathered peacefully in upstate New York for the largest concert in history -- The Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Even torrential rain couldn’t stop young music lovers from celebrating peace and living in harmony. At least for a few days. But those memorable moments were merely the brief calm before a darker storm.

Compelled to share my sense of foreboding, I began writing an editorial page column. Its kicker – the lead-in phrase that appeared above the column’s headlines -- was “Polarities in Our Time.” Each week I reflected on the growing division in a country wracked by assassinations, self-righteous backlash, political disintegration, and the impotence of liberals. By examining prejudice, hypocrisy and stereotypes, I hoped to convince the community that the cause wasn’t hippies, gays, militant Blacks or anti-war protesters but rather the nation’s unjust policies and corrupt leaders.

Eventually, I honed in on a story that encapsulated the dynamic – the trial of the Chicago Eight. Here was clear evidence that the empire was striking back. The “power structure” couldn’t allow the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 to be remembered as a time when the cops, supposedly protectors of democracy, became brutal aggressors. If someone else was found guilty, the authorities – and the state itself – might still be vindicated. Such was the twisted logic of the day.

NEXT: War at Home -- Chicago and COINTELPRO

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Feith on The Daily Show: More Disinformation

Jon Stewart conducted a thoughtful interview with former Bush administration propagandist Douglas Feith on The Daily Show May 12 that went far beyond “fake news” to grapple with very real issues. However, in the end Stewart, perhaps inadvertently, let Feith off the hook.


As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Feith was one of the key people who built the “link” between 9/11 and Iraq, and orchestrated the momentum that led to the war. The facts are available in several books, including Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Richard Clark’s Against All Enemies. But the strongest evidence appears in James Bamford’s A Pretext for War.


As Bamford explains, Feith and Richard Perle developed their blueprint for the Iraq operation while working for pro-Israeli think tanks. Their plan, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” centered on Israel taking out Saddam and replacing him with a friendly leader. “Whoever inherits Iraq,” they wrote, “dominates the entire Levant strategically.” The subsequent steps they recommended included invading Syria and Lebanon.


In the 1990s, Feith churned out anti-Arab diatribes in Israeli newspapers. In those articles, he urged Israel to establish more settlements and end the Oslo peace process. When George H.W. Bush was president, Feith organized a group to denounce him for “mistreatment of Israel.” What he wanted was a full-scale war against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.


In the Defense Department, Feith created the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) after 9/11. Senior officials called it a disinformation factory. Torie Clarke, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, warned about “blowback” and said that OSI would undermine “the trust, credibility, and transparency of our access to the media.”


But the worst was still to come: Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), which Stewart did mention and discuss. Officially, its job was to conduct pre-war planning. But its actual target was the media, policy-makers, and public opinion. Feith’s partner, Abram Shulsky, liked to call their operation “the Cabal.”


According to London’s Guardian newspaper, the OSP provided key people in the administration with “alarmist reports on Saddam’s Iraq.” In particular, holdouts like Powell needed to be persuaded. To do that, the OSP obtained cooked intelligence from its own unit and a similar Israeli cell. There was also a close relationship with Vice President Cheney’s office. In the end, the public heard what Feith’s unit wanted them to hear.


OSP’s intelligence unit cherry-picked the most damning items from the streams of US and Israeli reports. “Then the OSP would brief senior administration officials,” Bamford writes. “These officials would then use the OSP’s false and exaggerated intelligence as ammunition when attempting to hard-sell the need for war to their reluctant colleagues, such as Colin Powell, and even to allies like British Prime Minister Tony Blair.” Senior White House officials received the same briefings. It was clearly music to their ears.


The final step was to get Powell to make the case to the UN. This was handled by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a secret office established to sell the war. WHIG provided Powell with a “script” for his speech, using information developed by Feith’s group. Much of it was unsourced material fed to newspapers by the OSP. Realizing this, Powell’s team turned to the now-discredited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. But some of Feith’s handiwork ended up in Powell’s mouth anyway.


Stewart conducted a serious interview, one that put most of TV’s talking heads to shame. Nevertheless, it also allowed Feith to spread more disinformation and wash his hands of responsibility.

Death Match Logic: Make No Assumptions

If you listened to most political analysts in 2004, that Presidential Death Match was supposed to be a referendum on how the incumbent had handled Iraq and the economy. And since both looked shaky for much of the year, some predicted Bush II might end up on the “one-term” bench with his dad. But things change, especially when the stakes are so high, and drawing conclusions about the dynamics of an election months in advance can be dangerous.


Karl Rove and the religious Right wanted the 2004 race to be about values – you know, patriotism, optimism, standing up for heterosexual marriage. Actually, they meant that people should simply accept authority (“Father knows best,” after all!), ignore uncomfortable facts, and conform to their evangelically-infused 1950s vision. But the election ended up being about many things – security, deception, gay marriage, decency, and the all-important “likeability.”


Howard Dean’s incandescent sprint toward the White House turned out to be a warning: Be prepared for the unexpected. By winning the so-called “invisible primary” – the fundraising and organization-building race before any votes were cast – he looked like a viable “frontrunner.” But his support turned out to be demographically thin and easy to undermine. He ended up going from “hot” to “not” in less than a month.


Like the outbursts of Barack Obama’s former minister Jeremiah Wright, Dean’s brief rant after the Iowa caucuses – which became infamous as the “I have a scream” speech – was the hottest clip on TV and the Internet for weeks, the focus of endless jokes and analysis. In five days, the “scream heard round the world” was played almost 700 times on US TV networks. As Dean’s poll numbers dropped, critics immediately concluded that he simply didn’t have the “temperament” to be President. The emphasis shifted from which candidate had the most compelling message to which would be more “electable.” Dean was about to be winnowed out.


Struggling mightily to turn a disaster into an opportunity, the embattled candidate spent the next days blanketing the networks with interviews, appearing with his wife, joking about his performance on late night TV, even distributing video tapes of a warm and fuzzy interview with Diane Sawyer to more than 100,000 New Hampshire residents. Oddly enough, it began to work. Some people concluded that the criticisms of Dean were exaggerated. But Kerry meanwhile seized his opening to step above the fray, stressing his “gravitas” and showcasing his manly skills by playing Hockey and piloting a helicopter. Like a contender on the original Survivor reality show, he was trying to establish his value to the tribe.


The following Tuesday, when New Hampshire primary votes were tallied, the strategy paid off. Kerry repeated his Iowa performance, pulling in 39 percent. But Dean made a partial comeback with a convincing second place finish. His speech that night was more sedate, yet still defiant. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to throw him off the island, at least for a few weeks.


The real casualties, for the moment, turned out to be Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa to spend weeks alone in New Hampshire – only to come in a weak third, and Joe Lieberman, stuck in fifth with less than 10 percent after virtually living in the state for a month and bragging about his “Joe-mentum.” Neither immediately gave up, but both were now on the critical list. That’s how it goes on Caucus Survivor.


Some said Dean was assassinated by a hostile media. It’s partly true. But they couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t supplied the bullets. Dean’s candidacy was a promising insurgency, but never more than a work in progress. And the notion that it changed the Democratic Party took too much for granted. Another assumption was that Ralph Nader’s presence in the race would broaden the discussion. But as it turned out, he didn’t get to participate in major debates or make it onto the ballot in many states.


Many people also assumed that Bush was a fool. His intellectual laziness seemed well-established, yet he certainly was smart enough to know whom he represented. He was part of a political dynasty, and his rule represented a restoration for his family and its long-term allies in the energy section, defense industry, Pentagon, CIA, and investor class. He also became the de facto leader of the Christian Right, projecting its “good” versus “evil” view of the world. An opportunist? Certainly. But no fool.


Finally, too many people uncritically accepted the platitude that everything had changed after 9/11. Not quite. Some things were proceeding as usual, notably the manipulation of public opinion and the election process.


Coming Soon: Momentum – the Movie