At the onset of the 2004 important election, a new book from the Center for Public Integrity unmasked the powerful special interests behind national politics. NOW examined the role of big money in pre-selecting presidential candidates even before a single primary vote is cast. Bill Moyers interviewed Charles Lewis, author of THE BUYING OF THE PRESIDENT 2004, a book exposing the big money, special interests and large contributors behind each of the 2004 presidential hopefuls, leaving no candidates immune from the money-politics connection.
The energy giant Unocal was one of the last American companies doing business in Burma, a country condemned by the U.S. government for a record of heinous human rights abuses. Unocal, along with its French and Thai investors, took on a unique partner in a project to build a pipeline with the Burmese military, which has a notorious reputation for rape, slave labor, and murder. Should American corporations like Unocal be held accountable for business dealings overseas? NOW takes viewers into the Burmese jungle with courageous Burmese worker Ka Hsaw Wa, who has documented the abuses related to the pipeline project. The program also tells the story of Ka Hsaw Wa’s wife, Katie Redford, an American lawyer and a founder of the human rights group EarthRights International, who was using an obscure law passed in 1789 to bring suit against Unocal to make it liable for human atrocities committed in the name of corporate profits.
Then, David Brancaccio talked to Irshad Manji, best-selling author, television personality, and media entrepreneur. She is the Muslim and lesbian whom MS. magazine named a “Feminist for the 21st Century.” Manji leads gay and lesbian pride parades, Islamic reform initiatives, Jewish discussions and character education for young people. In her new book THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM: A WAKE-UP CALL FOR HONESTY AND CHANGE, Manji explores why and how the Muslim world can move beyond anti-Semitism to embrace diversity. Manji discusses with Brancaccio her views on the most fundamentalist aspects of Islam, her personal journey with Islam and the reprisals – including death threats — that she is getting from people within her own faith for being so outspoken. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. They were off and running this week in the presidential sweepstakes, and later in our broadcast we’ll take a look at how mulligans, martinis and money affect the politics of 2004. First though, we begin with a new, young, and dissenting voice of Islam. The more than one billion Muslims in the world are not a monolith, and within the faith a struggle is going on over how much to tolerate diversity and democracy.
BRANCACCIO: By the way, sorry in advance for my voice. ‘Tis the season, I guess.
Let’s look at what happened in Afghanistan this week. Under a vast white tent in Kabul, the Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, agreed to a new Constitution — “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world,” said the American ambassador. It calls for elections, two houses of a national assembly and an independent judiciary. It also recognizes women as equal citizens and sets aside 25 percent of the lower house of Parliament for them.
I’m interested to know if our first guest takes this as indeed a momentous step, or a mirage. Irshad Manji is a devoted Muslim but she is also an outspoken advocate of reforming the faith. Born in east Africa, she was raised in Canada where she is a popular television personality and a controversial author. Her new book is called THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM: A MUSLIM’S CALL FOR REFORM IN HER FAITH and she’s here to talk about the ideas in it.
Irshad Manji, welcome to NOW.
MANJI: Thanks so much.
BRANCACCIO: Well, what do you make of this new Afghan constitution? Are you encouraged?
MANJI: Encouraged, hopeful. But not stupidly so. You know, what’s interesting is that there is absolutely no prescription in the Koran for what kind of a government real Muslims ought to have.
And that’s encouraging. Because this means that there’s room to maneuver. We can experiment. And I believe that we, as a global community, have not yet experimented deeply enough with Islam, to know whether in fact, it is compatible or incompatible with democracy. And that’s why, David, I’m not yet convinced. Unlike so many Muslim dissidents, or ex-Muslims, I am not yet convinced that Islam is beyond reform, or that we need some kind of a Western style, you know, separation of Mosque and state.
The problem here in all of this is that mainstream Muslims around the world still consider the Koran to be the final, and therefore perfect, manifesto of God’s will, not given to being analyzed or interpreted, never mind questioned.
BRANCACCIO: But surely there’s a tradition in Islam of questioning the book —
MANJI: Yes, there is.
BRANCACCIO: — of debate and diversity?
MANJI: Yes. And I go into that in my own book. It’s called ijtihad. Sounds a lot like jihad to non-Arab ears.
MANJI: Ijtihad. And it comes from the same root as jihad, by the way — to struggle. But unlike violent jihad, ijtihad is all about independent reasoning, independent thinking. Most Muslims, never mind non-Muslims, don’t know about this tradition.
We are not taught about it. It is a short-lived tradition. One, you know, at its peak for about 200-300 years. And then towards the end of the 11th century, the doors of independent thinking slammed shut, for very political reasons. Yet we Muslims in the 21st century have inherited this closed-mindedness.
BRANCACCIO: Now Irshad, frankly, you’re not a card-carrying, religious scholar. You don’t have a shingle that says that’s your academic background.
MANJI: That’s right. But I have been a Muslim all my life. And I’ve been questioning all my life. And I paid the price for it —
BRANCACCIO: Tell me about that. What is it in your background that gives you really the standing to offer this interpretation?
MANJI: I know that from a very young age, having grown up in North America, even if I couldn’t articulate it this way, David, I was grateful to have the freedoms of expression and thought that I grew up with; not in the madressa, and in the Mosque, and to some degree, even in the home. In the private realms, there was repression.
But that is exactly why the freedom to think, and to express myself impacted me as much as it did. Because of those freedoms that I continue to have faith in my faith. Because those freedoms gave me the opportunities to delve and research, challenge and be challenged. And as a result, I discovered in theory at least, a progressive side of Islam. Were it not for those freedoms, I may well, in my heart of hearts, have been an Atheist.
BRANCACCIO: That’s the key point here. I’m very interested to find out that you’re approaching this from within the fold of Islam. It is a religion that must speak to your heart in certain ways.
MANJI: It does. I, you know, and I try not to be supremacist, or arrogant about this. I do believe that we are all children of one creator. There are some wonderful pillars of Islam that — by which I abide.
Fasting, for example. Believe it or not, I fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Why? Because it builds discipline. And it builds character. So, there are some fundamental pillars of Islam that I believe are worthy of following. But that doesn’t mean that I have to sacrifice the equally sacred part of my identity, namely thinker, intellect, user of a brain.
BRANCACCIO: But are you sure that it’s the problem with Islam? Maybe you just had the wrong teacher when you went to an Islamic school, a madressa?
MANJI: It’s a very good point. And I’ve been — tried to be fair about that. As a matter of fact, after I got booted out of my madressa at the age of 14, for asking too many questions, and too many of the wrong questions, I had a crucial choice to make. I could shake off my Muslim identity, and get on with celebrating my emancipated, North America self, or I could give Islam another chance.
But I do think today there is something very troubling or problematic about mainstream Islam in the way that it is practiced. And that is, that only in Islam today is literalism mainstream. I do not deny, David, that literalism, or every faith has its share of literal —
BRANCACCIO: There are fundamentalists of every faith.
MANJI: Sure there are. How influential are those fundamentalists in Judaism, in Christianity, when compared to Islam? Like I said earlier, and this is really the key point that I hope non-Muslims understand, even moderate Muslims will not question the presumed divinity of the Koran.
We are raised, even in the West, to believe that believe that because the Koran comes after the Torah and the Bible, chronologically, it is the final, and perfect manifesto of God’s will. And I’ll tell you why that’s dangerous. Not because I think moderate Muslims are somehow gonna become Fundamentalists, and start hurling bombs at infidels.
No. But because when abuse happens under the banner of our faith, most Muslims have no clue how to debate, dissent, revise or reform. And that I believe, is why there has been stony silence, even passivity and complacency from mainstream Muslims in the face of terror, represented by 9/11.
BRANCACCIO: You describe a scene in the book, where you’re giving one of those speeches to a university, I think gay and lesbian group. And people came to stare you down?
MANJI: Yeah. They came to stare me down. Now this was actually— it was a speech about God, and gays, and why I believe the two are not only reconcilable, but eminently compatible.
And it was … the audience was comprised of many faiths, and people of no faith in particular. And the only organized brigade that showed up organized, was the Muslims Students Association. And what they did is they physically lined the perimeter of the room.
All of them stood, and tried to stare me down, so that any time I would look up from my notes, I couldn’t help but see the quote, “authentic” — and in this case, certainly unamused — visage, face of Islam. But what was interesting is in the Q&A when I asked questions about why — if Islam is the straight path, as devout Muslims like to say — why there are differences in practice between regions? For example, between India and say, Saudi Arabia?
And immediately the Arab head of the Muslims Students Association shouted out, “Because Islam was revealed to the Arabs. Everybody else is a wannabe.” And the South Asians in that group of his turned away from me, and to him in horror and disgust. You’re telling us that by virtue of having been converted to Islam, we are second class?
And that is when the Muslims Students Association basically melted in front of me. So, all of this is simply to say that there are issues within the Muslim world, issues of second class citizenship, of discrimination, of racism between Muslims, and purity that we Muslims have to honestly own up to.
BRANCACCIO: I need to get something straight. You hosted a program in Canada called QueerTelevision. You’re an outspoken lesbian. How is it that you integrate that side of yourself with your reading of the Koran?
MANJI: Well, first of all, I am openly gay, but I’m certainly not arrogantly gay. And by that I mean I don’t necessarily believe that being in a same-sex relationship is acceptable to my God. It may very well be a sin. I grant that possibility, truly.
But only my God can make that decision on the Day of Judgment. And in the meantime, David, just as people have questions for me, “How do you reconcile homosexuality and Islam,” I have questions for them. For example, the Koran is very clear that everything that God made is, quote, “excellent,” that nothing that God made is, quote, “in vain,” and that God deliberately designed the world’s breathtaking multiplicity.
So how do my detractors reconcile those statements with their utter condemnation of homosexuality? I’m not saying that I’m wrong. But I want to know what makes them believe they are right.
BRANCACCIO: As you’ve alluded to, you do have your critics. And I was reading Sheema Khan who writes a newspaper column in a newspaper in Canada. She heads the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Canada. And she says that you ignore centuries of vigorous, interpretive discussion and diversity surrounding the Koran. Her quote, “One can sense that Manji is travelling on her own path, trying to reconcile a blurred vision of Islam with basic issues of justice. Yet there is no compassion, no mercy in her cathartic diatribe.”
Setting aside “cathartic diatribe” for the moment, “no mercy”? I mean, one possible reading of that is that your heart isn’t open enough to Islam and therefore you’re shutting yourself off to people who might be more interested in your arguments.
MANJI: It’s an astounding claim to make. Because as she suggests, or insists, I ignore centuries of interpretive history? David, my vision for the liberal reform of Islam is based on those centuries of interpretive history. The tradition of ijtihad, of independent reasoning, of the fact that at a certain point in the golden age of Islam, you know, people were able to hold salons.
Women were able to run those salons and discuss and debate all kinds of issues from what women and men are prohibited and allowed to do based on the Koran.
I more than pay attention to that in my book. I am arguing that what we Muslims need to do is rediscover that tradition.
It’s going to take curious, questioning voices, of which there are plenty in the Islamic world, to finally step up to the plate and say, “Whatever happens, I have enough faith in my faith, and in my fellow Muslims to believe that we are better than we are giving ourselves credit for. More humane. More compassionate. And more thoughtful.”
BRANCACCIO: But really, do you think there is enough critical mass that would allow you to, well, I mean, you’re arguing for some sort of reformation of Islam.
MANJI: Counter reformation, really. Because I mean, Islam has gone through several reformations since you know, the 11th century. Sadly, all of them have been conservative reformations.
They’ve brought Islam closer and closer back to the 7th century, the founding moment. So, what I am, if you will, agitating for, but advocating certainly, is a liberal reformation of Islam.
BRANCACCIO: Is this a conversation that really needs to be had just among Muslims? Is there something that a non-Muslim should take from the book?
MANJI: Yes, there is a role for non-Muslims to play in this conversation.
And I am asking non-Muslims to ask Muslims the tough questions about Islam. For example, David, the next time you hear anybody, Muslim or not, wax eloquent that Muslim societies today have their own forms of democracy thank you very much, you need only interject with one question. “What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise in these so-called democracies?”
Not in theory. ‘Cause everything’s great in theory. But in reality. Don’t tell me what the Koran says, ’cause the Koran is all over the map on major human rights issues, from slavery to religious pluralism, to women’s equality. “Tell me what is happening on the ground.”
BRANCACCIO: The book is called THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM: A MUSLIM’S CALL FOR REFORM IN HER FAITH. Irshad Manji, thank you so much for being with us.
MANJI: My pleasure.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW.
Will money, and money alone, decide who will be our next President?
LEWIS: Every nominee since 1975 who raises the most money the year before the election gets the nomination without exception.
ANNOUNCER: America’s dirty little secret.
MOYERS: It got almost no press attention but there was a conference in Washington this week billed as a Summit on Petropolitics. That’s “petro” as in oil, and politics as in power. It’s purpose: to explain how America’s dependence on oil affects our economy and environment, our foreign policy and our politics. The undercurrent in all such meetings is concern over whose rules will govern the conduct of American companies abroad.
In recent years, as you may know, human rights activists have seized on something called the Alien Tort Claims Act, passed way back in 1789 to deal with pirates. They’re using it to hold multinational companies accountable for how they do business overseas. Dozens of cases have been filed in U.S. courts and we have a story about one that could go all the way to the Supreme Court. The huge California corporation Unocal is accused of complicity in human rights abuses while building a natural gas pipeline through the jungles of Burma. Here’s our story produced by Katie Pitra and reported by our senior Washington correspondent, Roberta Baskin.
PETROCELLI: In the oil and gas business, you don’t pick where the oil and gas is. The oil and gas is located where it’s located, and you gotta go get it.
BASKIN: In the production of oil and gas, multinational companies to far-flung places. In the case of Unocal, a five billion dollar American-owned company, it meant going to Burma.
PETROCELLI: If American companies who are in the oil and gas business don’t go abroad to compete for what are increasingly scarce natural resources, then they’re gonna sit on the sidelines, and lose the business. And American lose jobs and they lose valuable resources.
BASKIN: Which raises a question: should American corporations like Unocal be held accountable for their business decisions overseas? Because while the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Burma, and every major American corporation — including Amoco, Texaco, and Compaq computers — has left this country, Unocal has stayed. Its lawyer is Dan Petrocelli.
PETROCELLI: Unocal invested at a time when the current record and the current environment didn’t exist.
BASKIN: The current environment in Burma has existed since 1988, when a bloody coup left this small Asian country, also known as Myanmar, in the hands of a brutal and repressive dictatorship. For fifteen years, the U.S. government has condemned and shunned this regime for its record of human rights abuses — a record most visible in the case of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who, despite winning a landslide election 14 years ago to lead Burma, has spent most of that time under house arrest.
It was in Burma that Unocal became a partner in a 1.2 billion-dollar joint venture to build a pipeline that would carry natural gas from the country’s offshore fields, cutting east through Burma and on into Thailand, displacing villagers and destroying jungle along the way.
Unocal, along with French and Thai companies, took on a troubling partner — the Burmese military — the army, with its notorious reputation for human rights offenses, was supposed to provide security along the pipeline route. But it’s alleged they did much more.
PETROCELLI: Now, Unocal doesn’t control the Burmese military. And Unocal can’t stop the Burmese military from doing what they’re gonna do in that country. No more than the United States government does.
BASKIN: But a Burmese human rights activist named Ka Hsaw Wa aims to hold Unocal responsible for the military’s actions. Once tortured by the army himself, he’s talked to dozens of villagers along the pipeline route. With their faces and voices disguised for protection, they say they are witnesses to murder, rape and forced labor at the hands of the army.
JOHN DOE 1: He couldn’t carry the loads anymore, so the soldiers left him to die. The next day I found his body in the jungle.
BASKIN: Ka Hsaw Wa believed the pipeline project was at the core of the abuses he was documenting. What he didn’t know was how to hold its American backer accountable.
Then while working with refugees along the Thai-Burma border, fate intervened. He fell in love with a young American law student, Katie Redford. They married and now they’re suing Unocal, a case which could have profound consequences for multinational corporations working overseas.
REDFORD: We would be fine if their project was being carried out without human rights abuses.
BASKIN: Redford’s case began with a novel idea. Back in law school, she took a class where her professor introduced her to the Alien Tort Claims Act, an obscure law passed by the first Congress of the United States in 1789.
The act, signed by President George Washington, is on file here at the national archives. It was originally intended to seek damages from pirates. For almost 200 years, the Alien Tort Claims Act lay nearly dormant. But it resurfaced in the 1980s, when it was successfully argued, that foreigners can file suit in American courts for alleged human rights abuses committed abroad.
REDFORD: And I thought well, hmm, maybe if it can be used for human inequities, maybe the people of Burma can somehow benefit from that.
BASKIN: So under the guidance of her professor, Redford wrote a paper on how the Alien Tort Claims Act could be used to sue Unocal for alleged human rights abuses in Burma.
REDFORD: I wrote the paper. He was a great mentor. But at the end he said, “Good job, you’ve done your research, well written, but I hate to tell you this will never happen. It’s impossible. It’s unconstitutional, and it’s not gonna go any farther than this paper.”
BASKIN: Were you frustrated or inspired by that?
REDFORD: I sort of thought, “Well, that’s your opinion. I don’t believe you.”
BASKIN: Collaborating with other human rights groups, Redford filed a lawsuit known as Doe vs. Unocal. Seven years later, the suit has survived several challenges and is winding its way through the American courts.
REDFORD: We’ve had two courts in this case come out saying that Unocal knew about the human right abuses, knew about the rape, the torture and the killing and they benefited from it.
BASKIN: And yet despite that, Unocal continues to assert its innocence, convinced that when it comes to the Burma pipeline, the company’s actions have been ethical and consistent with international standards.
PETROCELLI: Unocal has no intention of buckling in to pressure put on by lawyers who disagree with their views. The lawyers are entitled to their opinions. But Unocal has a business to run.
BASKIN: Don’t you have a shared responsibility because you have the Burmese military who have this notorious record of human rights abuses, and you are basically forming an alliance with them, to build the pipeline?
PETROCELLI: You can’t be charged with liability simply because the Burmese military has a bad reputation.
BASKIN: The plaintiffs in the case, the Burmese villagers, are in hiding. But they have told their stories of abuse to Ka Hsaw Wa and the freelance filmmaker Milena Kaneva.
JANE DOE 1: They came to my village and they shot at my husband, and arrested us and questioned us. And one of them kicked my baby into the fire so my baby got burned and after two days my baby died.
BASKIN: Does Unocal believe that these stories were made up?
PETROCELLI: We were not there. We do not know. If someone testifies that they were beaten, it’s hard to believe that a person would make such a thing up. But could someone be wrong that they were injured, you know, 100 yards from an area that later became the pipeline area? Or two miles? Of course, they could be mistaken about that.
BASKIN: Petrocelli tells a different version of what happened along the pipeline’s path and says Unocal is proud of what it left behind.
PETROCELLI: Jobs are created. There have been socioeconomic programs that have been put into place. Hospitals have been built. Schools have been built. Mortality rates are down.
BASKIN: So we asked Petrocelli about one villager’s complaint that he’d been forced to work essentially as a slave laborer on one of several helipads built along the route of the pipeline.
PETROCELLI: It’s not true that every time an area was cleared for a helicopter to land that that was only because of this pipeline project.
BASKIN: Well, this — I actually have a picture. This was the metering station with the helipad. And this is where John Doe Number Nine, his claim is that he was a forced laborer to build the helipad which is over there. I mean, that’s right adjacent to the metering station. That didn’t exist except for the purpose of having the pipeline.
PETROCELLI: And there’s really no credible evidence whatsoever that any of the advanced construction sites could possibly have been built by forced labor. It’s impossible. It could not have happened.
BASKIN: But so far, the courts don’t seem to be buying that argument, and are taking a tough line in the case. In fact, Unocal’s position that the helipads weren’t part of the pipeline project led to a terse exchange between one of the judges and Unocal’s attorneys when the case was first argued in a federal court of appeals two years ago.
JUDGE TASHIMA: Tell me first what the helipads are for.
LAWYER: For landing helicopters.
TASHIMA: To construct the pipeline. To help construct the pipeline.
LAWYER: As Judge Liu mentioned in his opinion, they’re there for any purpose that the government wanted to use them.
TASHIMA: I know, but why would you build the helipad, you know, in a remote location right next to the pipeline right of way?
LAWYER: Well, the location where the pipeline’s going through —
TASHIMA: You have to draw these inferences in favor of the opponent to your motion.
LAWYER: But it doesn’t — well.
BASKIN: All along the pipeline’s corridor, there are claims the Burmese military used villagers as forced laborers, to carry supplies and build army camps and roads to support the pipeline.
REDFORD: Well, anyone who refuses the Burmese military faces a number of different kinds of retaliation from beating, torture, family members being harmed, to being killed.
BASKIN: These are all charges the company categorically denies.
PETROCELLI: And certainly if it happened Unocal didn’t know about it. And Unocal can’t be blamed for something it didn’t know about, and it didn’t have anything to do with and it didn’t control.
BASKIN: That’s what Unocal’s attorney says. But Unocal’s former president, John Imle said something quite different.
REDFORD: Unocal’s president John Imle admitted under oath that he knew that forced labor was happening in conjunction with this pipeline and he’s admitted that in fact this forced labor was happening and Unocal knew about it.
BASKIN: In fact, his 1997 deposition acknowledges quote, “Some porters were conscripted and some were volunteer.” But even if Unocal knew about that and the other alleged abuses, Petrocelli says the Alien Tort Claims Act simply isn’t applicable to modern times and modern problems.
PETROCELLI: The kinds of violations of international law that were the genesis of the Alien Tort statute back in 1789 had to do with such things as a tax on foreign ambassadors, or piracy on the high seas. It was never intended to be used for claims against private companies such as my client the Unocal company.
BASKIN: The Unocal case is just one of a series of cases in which the Alien Tort Claims Act is being used to try and hold U.S. corporations accountable for their actions overseas. For example, dozens of companies are being sued for doing business in South Africa during apartheid. And other cases, involving everything from human rights to the environment, have been brought against corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, and DynCorp. While some of these cases have been dismissed, the Unocal case has gone the farthest in the courts.
And now, there’s a new development. For the first time, the U.S. government is arguing against the law, filing a brief saying the Act quote, “raises significant potential for serious interference with the important foreign policy interests of the United States.” In other words, the U.S. Department of Justice wants to roll back the law.
KOH: They went for the most extreme position of all. They said all the cases going back to 1980, including those against government officials, gross abuses, all of them should be wiped out.
BASKIN: The new dean of the Yale Law School, Harold Hongju Koh, believes the Justice Department is making a mistake.
KOH: And that seemed to me to be using a canon to kill a flea.
BASKIN: Koh is a supporter of the 200-year-old law. He first became familiar with the act while working in the Justice Department during the Reagan years and then in the State Department under the Clinton administration. Koh says the question of whether the law can be used against private companies should be properly settled on a case-by-case basis.
KOH: It seems to me that’s also why you have motions to dismiss, and why you have judges, and why you have people managing these cases — to sort out and separate out the wheat from the chaff.
BASKIN: Just recently an outspoken critic of the act joined the Justice Department. That’s Jack Goldsmith, Katie Redford’s former law professor. He’s the same man who, while giving her an “A” on her paper, also told her these kinds of lawsuits would never stand up in court. He now has the ear of the Attorney General drafting important legal opinions on Constitutional issues.
KOH: The claim that the administration is making is that this undermines the war against terrorism. I find this a very peculiar argument. In the first case, if you can’t sue a corporation, you can’t sue al Qaeda. You can’t sue any private network. If you can’t sue a corporate executive, you can’t sue Osama bin Laden. And if you don’t have jurisdiction or a cause of action, you can’t sue Saddam Hussein.
BASKIN: Both sides in Doe vs. Unocal are now waiting on a ruling by the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and it’s likely that whatever the ruling, there will be a further appeal to the Supreme Court.
BASKIN: What is it like taking on a huge multi-national oil company?
REDFORD: So far we’ve been successful. So in spite of their millions of dollars and their overwhelming size and power and political accessibility to the government, they haven’t been able to make this go away.
BASKIN: And Redford says there may even be a modern benefit to keeping the 200-year old act in place. As corporate America moves further onto the global playing field, the law might actually help ensure fair competition by establishing some clear rules of the game.
REDFORD: I mean, if anything, it has to be good for globalization for corporations to have to be held to certain human rights standards and for these standards to be evenly enforced across the board.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS —
The fight for the environment gets some unlikely allies: Inner-city kids who want to save their neighborhood, one of the toughest and most polluted places in America.
PHILLIPS: This is a part of me. This is my heritage. And to be part of something so beautiful it’s overwhelming when you look at it around here. And you can say I’m a part of something so beautiful.
ANNOUNCER: Violence and hope in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at pbs.org.
Find out what other Muslim women say about Islam. Should American companies be held responsible for their business dealings overseas? Take our poll. Track campaign dollars on line: who’s giving and who’s getting the money?
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: It’s an election year, as you’ve surely noticed, and in this first week of the new political year there was a new twist on “grabbing them by their hearts and minds.”
The Internet advocacy group MOVEON.ORG ran a contest inviting the public to create homemade 30-second spots on, quote, the “failure of President Bush’s policies.” Among the 1500 entries were two comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler. A howl went up from Republicans despite the fact that neither ad impressed readers and both were eliminated from contention and from the Web site. You can see the l5 ads that made the final cut at moveon.org.
On the campaign trail, Howard Dean’s idea for shrinking the deficit by repealing Bush’s tax cuts, made him the target of a new ad campaign sponsored by the conservative Club for Growth.
VIDEO CLIP: “Howard Dean should take his tax hiking, government expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body piercing, Hollywood loving, Left-Wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”
You can see more ads at clubforgrowth.org.
Out in Iowa political ads have turned the “field of dreams” into an avalanche of images. More than 10,000 campaign ads have run there since the election cycle began — 10,000 ads in a state of fewer than 3 million people.
In the political wars, of course ads do the work of missiles, and President Bush has been making sure he is fully armed. After a brief visit to an inner-city school he collected almost three million dollars from a single event in St. Louis, then later in the week scored big again at fundraisers in Knoxville, Tennessee and Palm Beach, Florida. By the time he had returned to Washington his war chest had grown to more than $130 million dollars.
It was off to the frontlines of the political wars for members of Congress, some of them showing up for hazardous duty at this hardship post in the Arizona desert, the Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix.
They were here to share mulligans and margaritas with captains of industry who paid big bucks to powwow in “small and intimate” sessions where they can help the Congressmen prepare to rewrite the Clean Air Act, among other things. We’re not making this up. Look for yourself right there on the registration form.
And who else were the business folks promised?
Old friends like the former lobbyist turned Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Steven Griles, whose department oversees American’s natural resources so hungrily coveted by industry.
High-powered appointees were also expected from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, and the Bureau of Land Management — along with powerful members and staff of key congressional committees — all available here to campaign contributors willing to pay for some private time with public employees.
One of the sessions even offers paying customers a chance to help Members of Congress draw up a ‘Top Ten To Do List.’
Fifteen members of Congress according to the Web site, promised to attend. But late yesterday the heat of publicity caused five of them to pull out.
None of this, not the wars waged on the airwaves, not the unprecedented fundraising, not even the selling of public policy on the putting green will surprise my guest, Chuck Lewis. He’s been following the money trail longer than almost any bloodhound I know. Fifteen years ago he left his job at 60 MINUTES to set up the Center for Public Integrity as a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog in Washington. The Schumann Foundation that I head has been a supporter of the center.
Here’s the latest from Chuck Lewis and his team. The BUYING OF THE PRESIDENT, 2004, published just yesterday. It’s the latest in a long line of Center investigations into the mercenary culture of Washington.
This one took 50 researchers, writers and editors over a year investigating the candidates and the political parties, contacting or interviewing 600 people and analyzing nearly two million financial records at over 100 federal agencies. Welcome to NOW.
LEWIS: Thank you for having me.
MOYERS: You say in here that in the buildup to the 2000 election, I believe George Bush raised about $240,000 a day and Al Gore raised about $85,000 a day?
LEWIS: That’s right. And now Bush is at $500,000-plus a day, more like $575 a day. So he has more than doubled those astonishing numbers from ’99.
MOYERS: You report that when General Wesley Clark retired from the military, he earned over $800,000 lobbying former pals and peers for airline and homeland security contracts and that he didn’t tell us that when he appeared on CNN as a commentator on the war on terrorism. Why would a man do that, thinking he’s going to run for President? Because that’s bound to be harmful when it is ultimately disclosed?
LEWIS: Well, that’s sort of what I thought. It’s the first time I know of a major Presidential candidate running who’s also currently a lobbyist. When he announced, September 17th, he was still registered in Washington as a lobbyist.
MOYERS: Yet the new Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barber, was one of the most successful lobbyists in the history of Washington.
LEWIS: Well, we’re getting a new phenomenon now, the new shamelessness where people don’t care any more. It used to be that a lobbyist ran, people would laugh him out of the room, and it would be unacceptable. Now you have a guy who just got elected Governor of Mississippi and we have a Presidential candidate who not only was a lobbyist, but he was a commentator objectively commentating on the war while he was trying to get homeland security and defense contracts and meeting with the Vice President among others.
And I’m not sure CNN knew this, by the way. We talked to CNN. We’re trying to get information about what did they know and when did they know it. But … everyone should have disclosed that. No question.
MOYERS: You’ve got this in the book, but were you really surprised that with the makers of Budweiser beer as his largest contributor, Richard Gephardt tried at least five times to cut the alcohol tax?
LEWIS: I wasn’t surprised. And you know, his campaign says, “Well, what do you expect us to do? They’re one of the biggest employers in Saint Louis and in his district.” And my view is, yes, you are supposed to represent your constituents, and including large employers in your district. That’s your job as a member of Congress.
I don’t dispute that for a moment. I do happen to think that if you’re running for President, the American people have a right to know who your best friend in the world is that gave you more than half a million dollars. I think that’s relevant information. And now the public will know that if there’s any health care initiative, we won’t be paying for it with an alcohol tax, which is exactly what he fought against and succeeded in eliminating in the Clinton years.
MOYERS: You point out in here that John Edwards, running for the President from North Carolina, went to 175 fundraisers in the first three months of his campaign. Two a day?
LEWIS: He absolutely did. And the problem is they’re all doing that. And I’ve talked to Presidential candidates who opted out of the system like Jack Kemp years ago in the first BUYING OF THE PRESIDENT who said, “Look, I’m 60 years old. I have grandchildren. I like to ski. I’m not gonna go to 200, 250 fundraisers in a year and be away from my family, travel 80 percent of the time and spend time with people I don’t want to spend time with.”
“If that’s what it takes to run for President, I’m not doing it.” Now, ironically in his case, he was named to the Dole ticket later. He didn’t see that one coming, I don’t think.
MOYERS: We said in this setup that the President has about $130 million already for his war chest and no primary opponent. What kind of advantage does that give the incumbent to have that much money?
LEWIS: Oh, it’s just off the charts. I mean, you know, every incumbent President has an advantage because they have the White House, the bully pulpit. They can control the agenda everyday, the photo ops, the news cycles. I mean, that’s already a great agenda — I mean, a great advantage that no one has. Forget the money.
And then when you have 130 million, more than three times Howard Dean’s 40 million which was the highest raised by any Democrat in 2003, that means you have three times more ads, three times more accountants and lawyers. Not — we don’t need them. But issue ads.
You’re gonna have more consultants. You’re gonna have more polling. You’re gonna have more word smithing about this precise methods. Your campaign will be slicker and more professional. It’ll also be in more states. It’ll have more grass roots. I mean, if there are any grass roots.
It’s just, you know, we all know in our society that you can do more and you can do it better usually if you have a lot of money. It’s just that’s true in campaigning as well.
MOYERS: How do you sum up the answer to your subtitle? “Who’s really bankrolling Bush and his Democratic challengers?” I mean, a lot of — you go through and you find a lot of different donors and contributors. What’s the short answer to that?
LEWIS: The most powerful interests in America that want to get something from government. That’s who’s bankrolling. In the case of Bush, his top ten career patrons, six of them are from financial institutions that —
MOYERS: Wall Street firms?
LEWIS: Wall Street firms that are benefiting everything from capital gains — policies to off-shore tax havens not being interfered with to, you know, you name it. Privatizing Social Security where they see a bonanza there if that comes to pass. And so this is a very exciting moment for those firms.
And so in 2000, in the career patrons for Bush, there were no financial firms in the top ten. Today there are six in the top ten. There’s been a flocking of money from Wall Street to Bush.
MOYERS: I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was when I read in here that Enron, the scandalous corporation now in bankruptcy, remains the top career contributor to George W. Bush’s — that’s true?
LEWIS: It is true. They’re actually the highest giving contributor in the entire book. And they have been with Bush throughout his career. In fact, the current CEO was still giving money in 2003 to Bush. But most of that money came from Texas when he was Governor, and they have no limits.
But Enron has gotten favors from Bush the father, from Clinton and from the current Bush. And we’ve actually on our Web site earlier in the past year have actually documented all the favors Enron has gotten. We also have found letters between Ken Lay and George Bush quite a number of them, dozens and dozens and dozens of personal.
MOYERS: This George Bush?
LEWIS: Yeah. “Dear Ken” and I don’t know whether he called him, “Dear Governor” or “Dear George.” But I mean, very close friendly —
MOYERS: He used to call him Kenny-boy.
LEWIS: He called him Kenny-boy until the Enron scandal broke and then it was suddenly Mr. Lay. And it was pretty amusing. But anyway, this is a very close relationship and no question about it. And yes, they’re still number one. MBNA and Merrill Lynch are closing fast, though.
MOYERS: Financial houses, financial services, big supporters of the President. Corporations that want something from government the next four years. Who’s bankrolling the Democrats if you could sum it up in kind of a bumper sticker like that?
LEWIS: Well, you, I mean, the principal top ten funders — six out of ten, no surprise — are labor unions. Labor unions give very aggressively. The National Executive Council, AFL-CIO Unions give and AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the top patron. They’ve actually given more money than any other donor in America, not just to the Democratic Party.
They’ve given 19 million over the last decade or so. And they also gave 36 million to these mysterious 527 political organizations. So they are very, very active. But the corporate presence in the Democratic Party is substantial just because all top ten are not corporations one should not get the view that corporations and do not substantially bankroll the party ’cause they do.
MOYERS: You say in the book that despite the recent McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform there are tens of millions of dollars sloshing through the states in mysterious organizations that have been set up. Tell me about those.
LEWIS: Well, we have a section in about the South Carolina primary and what happened in 2000 in the primary to John McCain. And he essentially got mugged. He was outspent five to one by Bush. But he also was mugged by all these outside groups who spent millions of dollars that were not disclosed anywhere. And a lot of the — you know, there are these new groups called 527s. But there’s also 501-C3 and other types of organization — Sorry.
MOYERS: The mind boggles.
LEWIS: I know.
MOYERS: No, I mean, they’re just — they’re all a way of camouflaging support for someone, right?
LEWIS: Right. That’s right. If I am a millionaire or a powerful corporate interest and I want to throw some money into the system, seven figure checks, I can do it today, regardless of the —
MOYERS: As George Soros is doing with the Democrats?
LEWIS: That — well, that’s right. You can do that. Soros does it. Everyone. Jane Fonda gave $11 million in the 2000 election. So folks are writing large checks. But we know that. That is actually disclosed. What is more insidious to me is when they’re writing those checks and we can’t see it.
That drives me crazy. And so there is — if I want to move money through the system today and I’m a powerful donor, I do know how to do it under the radar. There are ways to do that. And most journalists don’t know how to track it. And, in fact, it’s almost untrackable. That’s the point.
MOYERS: Is Dean any cleaner because he raised so much money from small donors on the internet?
LEWIS: You know, I’m always reluctant to use words like “cleaner” just because I don’t want to sound like I endorse anybody. But the numbers are — certainly he has smaller donor numbers. And even as governor for 11 years, Vermont has limits on their contributions of $400. So his numbers are — his third highest patron are his campaign staff members at $15,000. That tells you — compare that with 600,000 from Enron.
The problem is when you get up around 40 million and you go past 40 million, Howard Dean has opted out of the matching fund system. He is gonna have to keep raising at that pace.
And what’s happening is if he does get the nomination and every nominee since 1975 who raises the most money the year before the election gets the nomination without exception, history shows in recent years. The power elite, the financial elites will begin to coalesce around the Democratic person on the, in their minds, off chance that a Democrat beats the incumbent in 2004. And so my point is, the money, the texture of Howard Dean’s money is gonna and probably already has begun to substantially change.
MOYERS: You say in here that every election cycle becomes more exclusionary, more expensive and more secretive. How can you claim democracy is legitimate when essentially the system is rigged, as you say in the book, by powerful economic interests?
LEWIS: I think we have a problem here. And it is rigged. There’s a private referendum the year before the election where folks who write checks decide who you will vote for. I mean, most of the choices are already being made prior to Iowa and New Hampshire and all these primaries and caucuses.
Candidates who can only raise two or three million are being laughed at as being ridiculous or, you know, or not a significant force. They have all these euphemisms. But the fact that 90 percent of the money moves to candidates before the election is held and usually they drop out. Remember five Republicans dropped out of the race in ’99 because Bush raised $70 million, close to $70 million. And he came out of the box in the first quarter raising $37 million. The Republicans in the race — two-time former Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole, former Vice President Dan Quayle and other big-name candidates who all were national figures on the national stage, dropped out by September, three or four months before Iowa and New Hampshire.
Because all the air was sucked out of the room. The media endorsed, essentially, George Bush as the candidate and the inevitable one. And so there’s something strange going on when folks who write checks define who gets to run for President. You’d have to be a millionaire or be willing to raise unimaginable sums of money.
MOYERS: In 2002, out of 435 races for the House of Representatives, only four incumbents got beat?
LEWIS: Right. Only four incumbents lost their seats. The last three election cycles, the House of Representatives has had an incumbent retention rate of more than 98 percent. That sounds like North Korea or China but we’re talking about the United States of America.
MOYERS: You know, this book is a bummer.
LEWIS: I know. I’m sorry.
MOYERS: I have to tell — it is.
LEWIS: It is.
MOYERS: And I can — people out there listening to us, you know what they say? And I — they’ve said it to me face to face. “You know, why bother? The system is rigged.”
MOYERS: Are we becoming a nation of cynical bystanders in which increasingly small economic groups dominate our government?
LEWIS: Well, I mean, the short answer is, yes, we are. But citizens have got to take back their government. It’s supposed to be a government of, by and for the people. It’s clearly some people with large checks. We have a problem in our democracy where it’s been hijacked, essentially by powerful interests. And the public has got to decide is that acceptable or is it outrageous.
MOYERS: So why do you keep doing this?
LEWIS: Well, it’s because I’m crazy I think. A masochist.
I think the public has a right to better. The powers that be are unaccountable today. And the public has a right to know, a) who they are, and b) to decide whether or not they want to change that. And that’s up to them.
We’re not changing anything. We’re just telling ’em what’s going on.
MOYERS: The book is THE BUYING OF THE PRESIDENT, 2004 by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity. Thank you for joining us again on NOW.
LEWIS: Thank you.
MOYERS: Come with me now to a beautiful place. Come with me to Alaska to the Tongass National Forest.
Not perhaps Longfellow’s forest primeval, but about as close as you’ll get in the 21st century to nature before we touched it.
These seventeen million acres compose the biggest forest left in the United States and the largest rainforest in a temperate zone left in the world.
All you have to do here is open your eyes and ears and breathe deeply. Nature does the rest.
Much of the Tongass is still protected against development, we humans haven’t left a deep footprint here. That may change. Until recently there was a ban on building new roads through more than half of this forest. Two days before Christmas, at the height of the holiday rush, President Bush gave the green light to new roads and the logging and mining that follow them.
Officials in Alaska want more development on public lands and the jobs they hope come with it. Companies, of course, want the profits.
Officials say only 3 percent of the protected forest area will be affected, only 300,000 acres. Conservationists figure that as many as two and a half million acres of wilderness and waterways could be affected. We’ll see.
Listen. Take another look. Breathe deeply one more time and relax.
There’s a very experienced man to take care of the Tongass for us. Mark Rey’s his name.
Once upon a time he lobbied for the timber and paper industries. Companies that gave millions of dollars to the winning ticket in the last election. Now Mark Rey is the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the Agriculture Department, the guardian of our forests.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW.
Bill Moyers and my healthy voice will be back next week. I’m David Brancaccio. Goodnight.
This transcript was entered on April 22, 2015.