MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)
If you’ve seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty, you know why it has triggered a new debate over our government’s use of torture after 9/11.
The movie’s up for an Oscar as best motion picture. We’ll know later this month if it wins. Some people leave the theater claiming the film endorses and even glorifies the use of torture to obtain information that finally led to finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Not true, say the filmmakers, but others argue the world is better off without bin Laden in it, no matter how we had to get him. What’s more, they say, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/1 — if we have to use an otherwise immoral practice to defend ourselves against such atrocities, we’re okay with it. Or so the argument goes.
The story of bin Laden’s death is just one aspect of the international manhunt the United States has pursued, a worldwide dragnet of detention and death that has raised troubling questions and fervent debate over the fight against terrorism. What about the undermining of civil liberties here at home? The rights of suspects? The secret surveillance of American citizens? The swollen executive powers first claimed by George W. Bush and now by Barack Obama? MORE
The exterior view of Amgen Inc. offices in Fremont, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
The inauguration of a president is one of those spectacles of democracy that can make us remember we’re part of something big and enduring. So for a few hours this past Monday the pomp and circumstance inspired us to think that government of, by, and for the people really is just that, despite the predatory threats that stalk it.
But the mood didn’t last. Every now and then, as the cameras panned upward, the Capitol dome towering over the ceremony was a reminder of something the good feeling of the moment couldn’t erase. It’s the journalist’s curse to have a good time spoiled by the reality beyond the pageantry. Just a couple of days before the inaugural festivities, The New York Times published some superb investigative reporting by the team of Eric Lipton and Kevin Sack, and their revelations were hard to forget, even at a time of celebration.
The story told us of a pharmaceutical giant called Amgen and three senators so close to it they might be entries on its balance sheet: Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and that powerful committee’s ranking Republican, Orrin Hatch. A trio of perpetrators who treat the United States Treasury as if it were a cash-and-carry annex of corporate America. MORE
If you’re one of those who equate the worlds of Washington and Hollywood — the standard joke: “Politics is show business for ugly people” — then a presidential inauguration is the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmy Awards combined, right down to the parties, balls, extravagant wardrobes and goody bags stuffed with swag.
Just check out the online “57th Presidential Inauguration Store“, peddling more tchotchkes than the vendors outside a Justin Bieber concert — from shot glasses, T-shirts and tube socks to an Obama portrait by the artist Chuck Close and a $7500 set of official medallions.
President Obama's 2013 Inauguration store website.
The company behind this marketing behemoth — as it was during the 2012 campaign, when at times it appeared the Obama team was running a big box store rather than a presidential race — is Financial Innovations, Inc., which also happens to be one of a handful of corporations donating money to underwrite this year’s inaugural celebration. Its owner, Democratic fundraiser Mark Weiner, was an Obama bundler, raising as much as half a million dollars for the president’s re-election. According to Matea Gold at the Los Angeles Times, analyzing data from the Federal Election Commission, Financial Innovations “was paid more than $15.7 million by two Obama campaign committees to produce and mail campaign merchandise.”
Four years ago, the committee for President Obama’s first swearing-in proudly announced that no corporate cash would be accepted for the festivities, presenting the decision as “a commitment to change business as usual in Washington.” Nor was money taken from registered lobbyists and foreign agents, non-U.S. citizens or political action committees. What’s more, individual contributions were capped at $50,000.
This year, there’s a new attitude and a new push for dollars — the goal is set at $50 million. The rules against lobbyists, PACs and non-citizens are still in effect, but now, contributions of as much as a million are being solicited from individuals as well as businesses (although you’re banned from giving if you received taxpayer bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program – TARP — and haven’t paid it back!). MORE
In economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s book, End This Depression Now!, there’s a chapter titled “The Second Gilded Age” in which he describes the extraordinary rise in wealth and power of the very rich during this era of unregulated greed. Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the top one percent of Americans have seen their incomes increase by 275 percent. After accounting for inflation, the typical hourly wage for a worker has increased just $1.23.
Big Money, as Krugman writes in his book, buys Big Influence. And that’s why the financiers of Wall Street never truly experience regime change — their cash brings both political parties to heel. So it is that the policies that got us where we are today — in this big ditch of chronic financial depression — have done little for most, but have been very good to a few at the top.
But they’re not satisfied with having only most of it — they want it all. If Krugman were writing his book today, he could find plenty of evidence in the deal that supposedly kept us from going over the fiscal cliff. Behind closed doors, Congress larded it with corporate tax breaks worth tens of billions of dollars — everything from tax credits for NASCAR racing and the railroads to subsidies for Hollywood, rebates for the rum industry and loopholes for off-shore financing that could help giant multinationals like General Electric avoid billions of dollars in corporate income taxes. MORE
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
We wrote and spoke about guns just a few days before Christmas, following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. So did Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association. His now infamous, “no questions” press conference was the most stunning, cockeyed, one-man show since Clint Eastwood addressed that empty chair at the Republican National Convention.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he pronounced.
LaPierre might well have plagiarized his vision of a wholly armed nation from another “man of the people” of 40 years ago, the protagonist in the famous sit-com All in the Family. On a 1972 episode, when a local TV station comes out in favor of gun control, Archie Bunker hits the airwaves with an editorial rebuttal:
Good evening, everybody. This here is Archie Bunker of 704 Hauser Street, veteran of the big war, speaking on behalf of guns for everybody. Now, question: what was the first thing that the Communists done when they took over Russia? Answer: gun control. And there’s a lot of people in this country want to do the same thing to us here in a kind of conspiracy, see. You take your big international bankers, they want to — whaddya call — masticate the people of this here nation like puppets on the wing, and then when they get their guns, turn us over to the Commies…
Now I want to talk about another thing that’s on everybody’s minds today, and that’s your stick-ups and your skyjackings, and which, if that were up to me, I could end the skyjackings tomorrow… All you gotta do is arm all your passengers. He ain’t got no more moral superiority there, and he ain’t gonna dare to pull out no rod. And then your airlines, they wouldn’t have to search the passengers on the ground no more, they just pass out the pistols at the beginning of the trip, and they just pick them up at the end! Case closed.
Case closed. Except that Archie Bunker’s a fictional character, created by Norman Lear, who knew better. Not Wayne LaPierre — he’s real and he means business. Big business. MORE
As Saturday Night Live’s Stefon would say, this Washington tale has everything: accusations hurled and counter-hurled, handguns, multimillion dollar payoffs — just what we need to briefly distract us as the parties play chicken up on Capitol Hill’s fiscal cliff.
The story first came to public attention in early December, when David Corn and Andy Kroll at Mother Jones magazine reported that “former Rep. Dick Armey, the folksy conservative leader, has resigned as chairman of FreedomWorks, one of the main political outfits of the conservative movement and an instrumental force within the Tea Party.
“Armey, the former House majority leader who helped develop and promote the GOP’s Contract with America in the 1990s, tendered his resignation in a memo sent to Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, on November 30. Mother Jones obtained the email on Monday, and Armey has confirmed he sent it. The tone of the memo suggests that this was not an amicable separation… Armey demanded that he be paid until his contract ended on December 31; that FreedomWorks remove his name, image, or signature ‘from all its letters, print media, postings, web sites, videos, testimonials, endorsements, fund raising materials, and social media, including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter;’ and that FreedomWorks deliver the copy of his official congressional portrait to his home in Texas.”
Dick Armey, former House of Representatives leader and now Tea Party activist on Jan. 28, 2010. (AP /Eugene Tanner)
Last week, we talked about the infernal revolving door between government and big business and how one person in particular, Liz Fowler, has spun through it so many times she may need to take something for motion sickness. Which makes it a good thing that she’s going back to work as a lobbyist for the health care industry, where presumably she can get a prescription filled.
Fowler used to be a lobbyist with the health insurer WellPoint. Then she went to Capitol Hill as Senator Max Baucus’ health care reform architect followed by some time at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Obama White House. Now she’s headed back to the private sector, going to bat for the medical giant Johnson & Johnson where no doubt her deep insider knowledge of Washington will be worth every dollar.
We were reminded of the revolving door again when Bill spoke with Tony Kushner, the screenwriter of Lincoln, on this week’s edition of Moyers & Company. Early in the film, Lincoln tells his Secretary of State William Seward that he wants to ram through a lame duck House of Representatives the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. He needs support from his opposition, the Democratic Party. Seward says there’s none to be had but the politically savvy Lincoln reminds him that 64 Democratic members have just lost re-election and will be looking for jobs. “If procuring votes with offers of jobs is what you intend,” Seward replies, “I’ll fetch a friend from Albany who can supply the skulking men gifted at this kind of shady work.” And so he does.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The actual revolving door may not have been invented until 1888, more than 20 years after Lincoln’s death, but the principle already was firmly in place back then and still turning ‘round today, especially among departing members of the House. They’re looking for jobs and the siren call of K Street is irresistible.
We’ve seen how Washington insiders write the rules of politics and the economy to protect powerful special interests, but now as we enter the holiday season, and a month or so after the election, we’re getting a refresher course in just how that inside game is played, gifts and all. In this round, Santa doesn’t come down the chimney — he simply squeezes his jolly old self through the revolving door.
It’s an old story, the latest chapter of which came to light a few days ago with a small item in Politico: “Elizabeth Fowler is leaving the White House for a senior-level position leading ‘global health policy’ at Johnson & Johnson’s government affairs and policy group.”
A familiar name. We had talked about Liz Fowler on Bill Moyers Journal in 2009, during the early stages of Obama’s health care reform. She was at the center of the action, sitting behind Montana Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee at committee hearings. We noted, “She used to work for WellPoint, the largest health insurer in the country. She was Vice President of Public Policy. And now she’s working for the very committee with the most power to give her old company and the entire industry exactly what they want: higher profits, and no competition from alternative non-profit coverage that could lower costs and premiums.” MORE
Until now, this hasn’t been the best year for media mogul Rupert Murdoch. For one, none of the Republicans who’d been on the payroll of his Fox News Channel — not Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin — became this year’s GOP nominee for president.
Oh sure, when Mitt Romney got the nod instead, Murdoch’s TV and newspaper empire backed him big time, but on Election Night, Fox pundits like Dick Morris and Karl Rove — the top GOP strategist and fundraiser — had to eat crow as Barack Obama won a second term in the White House, despite their predictions of a Republican landslide. (When the network called Ohio and the election for Obama, a desperate Rove tried to keep Fox statisticians from doing their job until the facts couldn’t be ignored or denied. New York magazine reports that Fox News programming chief Bill Shine now “has sent out orders mandating that producers must get permission before booking Rove or Morris.”)
On top of all that, just this week, Murdoch’s News Corp announced the shutdown of The Daily, its multimillion dollar attempt at a national iPad newspaper. And last week in London, the thousand-page report of an independent inquiry into the gross misconduct of the British press came out — that big scandal over reporters illegally hacking into people’s cell phones and committing other assorted forms of corruption, including bribery. Murdoch’s gossip sheet, The News of the World, was right at the center of it, the worst offender. The fallout cost Murdoch the biggest business deal of his career — the multi-billion buyout of satellite TV giant BSkyB — and the report attacked his now-defunct News of the World for its “failure of management” and “general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity.”
But Murdoch’s luck may be changing. Despite Fox News’ moonlighting as the propaganda ministry of the Republican Party, President Obama’s team may be making it possible for Sir Rupert to increase his power, perversely rewarding the man who did his best to make sure Barack Obama didn’t have a second term. The Federal Communications Commission could be preparing him one big Christmas present, the kind of gift that keeps on giving — unless we all get together and do something about it. MORE
Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to former President George W. Bush, right, talks to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Forty years ago, as a young, aspiring political operative, I was a staff member on Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign. We thought we could beat Richard Nixon, but famously lost every state in the union except Massachusetts (with the District of Columbia thrown in as a forlorn consolation prize).
To commit to the presidential campaign lifestyle — endless hours and damn little charm — you really have to believe, no matter what, that your candidate will win. So last week I wasn’t surprised by the many stories about how the Romney team was convinced they would emerge victorious, polling evidence to the contrary, to the point where they reportedly had a fireworks display poised for ignition above Boston Harbor when the requisite electoral votes were achieved.
But what I don’t understand is building a castle in the air and, even in defeat, trying to keep paying rent on it, almost all evidence to the contrary. For years, the right wing has been living in its own version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings: an alternative and fanciful, fierce universe rarely bearing resemblance to real life but for odd, embittered moments like the one at President Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago on Election Night, when Fox News’ Ed Henry dourly announced, “The crowd is near pandemonium now, despite the fact that unemployment is hovering near eight percent.”
Talk about a party pooper. This all has been going on since at least 2004, when an unnamed aide to George W. Bush — widely thought to be Karl Rove — told journalist Ron Suskind, “We create our own reality… We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” MORE