As Democrats and Republicans battled for the hearts and minds of voters in key swing states in 2004, author Thomas Frank turned his attention to the traditionally red-voting state of Kansas which, he says, is a microcosm of a sea change in the voting patterns of working class Americas. Blue collar workers, says Frank, are embracing a conservative moral agenda centering on opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for school prayer. The American working class, he argues, is voting against its own economic interests. What can the Sunflower state tell us about why Americans struggling to provide for their families would vote conservative and against their own economic futures?
With the Kerry-Edwards ticket confirmed, the airwaves were abuzz with a fresh crop of political ads highlighting the Democratic vision of America. And this week the news is all about politics. But what’s behind the sound bites and images that we see on television? One of the country’s most respected political analysts, Kathleen Hall Jamieson is Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and author of EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT POLITICS… AND WHY YOU’RE WRONG. Bill Moyers talks Jamieson to analyze the campaign ads, and rhetoric that is defining the agenda of both tickets.
When this episode aired, as many as 30,000 people had been killed in what many have called ethnic cleansing in Sudan, with experts estimating hundreds of thousands more if aid doesn’t arrive soon. Forensic anthropologist Clea Koff is someone who knows what these crimes look like up close. Her job is to piece together clues about the dead, extracted from their bones and other remains, the topic of her new book THE BONE WOMAN. Koff has provided critical evidence for international trials prosecuting crimes against humanity and genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. David Brancaccio talks to forensic sleuth Clea Koff about finding truth in mass graves in the aftermath of war. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
No sooner had John Kerry chosen John Edwards as his running mate than the gnashing of teeth and the sharpening of knives could be heard the length and breadth of K Street, that notorious neighborhood in our nation’s capital where doors revolve in perpetual motion and lobbyists dine on rare beef and very done deals.
There was fear and loathing on the street because — you parents in the audience may want to cover the ears of your children as the term I am about to utter could get PBS fined for indecency — because John Edwards is a… trial lawyer. There, I’ve said it — a trial lawyer. No more loathsome beast stalks the nightmares of America’s board rooms than this creature from the dark lagoons of litigation, where victims of business and professional malfeasance seek retribution and compensation. A good trial lawyer can mean a settlement of millions if the verdict is on your side.
BRANCACCIO: And John Edwards is more than good. During twenty years of practicing law in North Carolina, he won more than forty cases for clients who collected over $175 million from his victories. In the process, John Edwards became a multimillionaire, a hero to his clients and a head-spinning Beelzebub to his foes.
“Frightening,” says Jerry Jasinowski when speaking of John Edwards. Mr. Jasinowski is president of the National Association of Manufacturers, where trial lawyers are thought of as shake-down artists whose litigation drives up the cost of business.
Over at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donahue was warning that his organization just may abandon its traditional neutrality and pull out the stops to defeat the Democrats in November because of this guy.
So the battle is joined. Republicans, who prefer their vice presidents from loftier realms than courtrooms — say, from the Halliburton Corporation — will cast Edwards as a class warrior. Democrats will offer him as a champion of the people. The race is on between really rich guys from two parties competing for the hearts and minds of a country where the median income is $35,038 a year.
MOYERS: And then there’s Rush Limbaugh reporting from Palm Beach, Florida. Come in, Rush.
LIMBAUGH: You know, folks, it gets to the point here of being ridiculous. I mean, we’ve got these guys out there saying, the WASHINGTON POST lead story subhead is: Massachussetts Senator Calls Ex-rival a Man of Middle Class Values. What the hell? Kerry’s a billionaire. What’s-his-name, Edwards, is in the $70 million class. I guess if you have a billion dollars and some guy’s got 70 million, you probably do think he’s middle class.
MOYERS: Spoken like a man trying to survive on the gold coast of Florida on a reported $30 million a year! Only in America, where politics thrives on cognitive dissonance.
Let’s turn now for some help on sorting out these messages from a woman who figured out THE DAVINCI CODE just from the photos on the jacket. Kathleen Hall Jamieson is Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia. Her books are legion: EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT POLITICS…AND WHY YOU’RE WRONG; THE PRESS EFFECT; DIRTY POLITICS: DECEPTION, DISTRACTION AND DEMOCRACY. She’s one of the authors of this new book, THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF PARTY POLITICS published this month. Welcome back to NOW.
JAMIESON: Thank you.
MOYERS: So, what’s the big change in politics this week?
JAMIESON: Big change in politics is that we began discussing the importance of the vice presidency. In a world in which the vice presidency has actually become substantially more important and all the historical bets are off. After September 11th, with Dick Cheney in the White House, open question about whether he’s the one who put the order in to shoot down the planes if necessary. Suggests that we’re now electing a team in a way, in the past we really weren’t. In 2000, George Bush campaigned as Bush-Cheney. Because, Cheney’s experience compensated for George Bush’s lack of experience. And George Bush signaled in 2000 that there are people who are probably going to be in the cabinet, or at least in the advisory court. He signaled by the people who spoke at the convention.
So, you saw Colin Powell featured, you saw Condoleezza Rice featured. In essence, in 2000, we saw the first campaign of a collective group running for president. If we’ve shifted our perception now as a result of September 11th to think that we elect a team, a President and a Vice President, then perhaps we also should be asking the question as we assess the strengths of one, and the strengths of another in that team, “Do we get a sense of a collective whole that’s greater than some of its parts?”
MOYERS: Right after Edwards was announced this week, the Democrats begin running a new TV ad that could be called, “Best Buddies.” Let’s look at it.
ANNOUNCER: One is a combat veteran with over 30 years of experience handling the toughest issues facing America. The other is the son of a mill worker who all his life has stood up for ordinary people against powerful interests.
Today they’re a new team for America with a plan to make us stronger at home and respected in the world. John Kerry and John Edwards. President. Vice-President. Kerry-Edwards. A new team for a new America.
KERRY: I’m John Kerry, and I approved this message.
MOYERS: What is the message?
JAMIESON: The message is that taken together, these two have the experience to be the strongest presidential team, perhaps in modern history. At least the argument the Democrats would make. Notice that it’s the experience that’s legislative that’s featured about Kerry, but it’s the life experience, and the experience as a trial lawyer that’s being featured with Edwards.
Taken together, you’ve got the Boston Brahmin and the person who lived out the American dream. You also have in this combination a collective argument that we’re electing the life experience of two, and those that set of life experience will adapt to any interest that you have in the body politic.
The argument that is implied in this is that the totality of the life experience is what should be considered as you look at this team. The totality of the life experience of Bush-Cheney is different from the totality of the life experience.
MOYERS: How so?
JAMIESON: Remember in 2000, George Bush didn’t air a single biographical ad. Not one. He didn’t run on his biography. The son of a President can’t really run on his biography. And he’s only been governor for six years.
And as a result, didn’t really have a lot of biography that he could argue from, apart from what he had accomplished as governor. He pivoted his campaign on the successes in Texas. They also didn’t build a case for Cheney’s biography. Although the press certainly did and used it to compensate for Bush’s weaknesses.
They didn’t argue in other words from biography. They argued from legislative path narrowly constructed as being Texas. This is an argument that says, for all their lives these people have prepared to do what needs to be done for the nation right now. And this is an election of a team. The danger for Edwards and for Kerry, is that somebody undercuts part of that argument. Because, now they’re building an argument for a team, not simply for the top of the ticket.
MOYERS: Well, the Republicans started to do that this week. You go to their website, GOP.com, and you see this, “Who is John Edwards? “A disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend of personal injury trial lawyers.” Dreaded words. Quote: “Edwards promises to fight against corporations, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, but doesn’t mind cashing their checks.” What’s the message there?
JAMIESON: The message is that it’s not the John Edwards who helped people who had been victimized get justice in the American system that they think they’re campaigning against. They think they’re campaigning against the trial lawyer who made a lot of money that probably should have gone to those poor victims.
We’re gonna have a discussion this year about the nature of lawyering in the United States. About the rights that people ought to have as they come into courts. Remember, this week is the week in which we have a legislative discussion about whether class action suits should be federalized or not.
MOYERS: And last night, a polarized Senate couldn’t agree, so they set it aside.
JAMIESON: And a key Bush campaign argument is an argument for tort reform. Now, the Kerry campaign, Kerry-Edwards campaign is going to cast that as an attempt to take away your rights when you’re victimized by big corporations, or by malevolent doctors. The Kerry campaign, the Edwards campaign is gonna argue that if you don’t have that lawyer to protect you, what do you have in this system?
And doesn’t our system of government guarantee you that have access, and those rights? This is actually a very important debate. And Edwards’ nomination is gonna put it front and center.
MOYERS: One of the most intriguing ads was the one that the Bush campaign released just after John Kerry had chosen John Edwards. It’s called FIRST CHOICE. Look at it.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: America is under attack by depraved enemies who oppose our every interest and hate every value we hold dear.
It is the great test of our generation and he has led with great moral clarity and firm resolve. He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He was determined and remains determined to make this world a better, safer, freer place. He deserves not only our support, but our admiration.
JAMIESON: The reason that I think that this ad is important is that John McCain had the capacity this year because the Bush campaign has just legitimized him to be a kind of broker about the norms of campaign discourse. A couple of times during the primary season, when the Bush campaign was strongly on the attack against John Kerry, McCain essentially stepped in and said, “No, enough.”
John McCain is an independent and a maverick, although a conservative and a good Republican. He is a friend of John Kerry and he has made the point that you ought to be able to be friends across the aisle. Something that is in very short supply in politics these days.
John Kerry, because he worked closely with McCain on those Missing in Action in Vietnam and worked with him in trying to normalize relations with Vietnam, has forged a relationship across the aisle. The McCain/Kerry relationship. Two Vietnam veterans. Stands in an environment in which McCain gets added credibility because he’s endorsed George Bush.
And McCain becomes, as a result, the presence in the room that has the capacity to shape both campaigns. What I’m interested most in watching McCain this year is watching for those moments in which on either side, McCain thinks that somebody’s overstepping.
Because McCain is the one who has the standing from inside the political process. Not as a pundit, not as a reporter, not as an outsider, but from inside the process. To step back and say, “We’re not gonna have any of that. That’s not acceptable.” And in particular, on the issues that matter most in this election, conduct in the war in Iraq and national security, he’s got particularly good credentials.
And as a result, the area that we’re most vulnerable to demagoguery on is one in which we now have in the room a civilizing presence. That’s John McCain.
MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that Vice President Cheney might not be a member of that team by the time the Republican National Convention is over?
JAMIESON: I think there is in this week’s news, a story that didn’t get a lot of play that’s really intriguing. Former Senator Alfonse D’Amato suggests that it might be time for Cheney to step down. George Bush has made it clear that he plans to keep Cheney, Cheney has indicated he plans to stay.
I can envision a circumstance however — because Cheney is under a lot of stress and has a heart condition — in which Cheney might conclude that for the well being of the country he might better serve the country if he were to take care of his health and step down. I suspect if that were to happen it would coincide with polling data suggesting that he was dragging down the ticket. And that might exacerbate the stress.
But at this point I think the best guess is that the Bush-Cheney ticket is in fact gonna be the ticket that goes forward. And as long as the election remains close, I suspect there’s not gonna be a political calculation to upset that. If the polling data changes dramatically, the Republican convention happens long after the Democratic one, there still is time for that as a possibility. I don’t think it’s likely. I think it’s possible.
MOYERS: John Kerry was having trouble until he took up Governor Dean’s populist rhetoric and message. And that propelled him ahead as a champion of the common man. It worked in Democratic primaries. But it didn’t work elsewhere.
It didn’t ring true, a man married to a billionaire wife with a home on Beacon Hill with two estates. People just couldn’t believe his populism was authentic. Does Edwards help him in that way?
JAMIESON: Yes. And that’s part of the reason that you’re seeing an argument for a team. The argument that says, “Son of a mill worker,” is the strongest argument that Edwards had during the primaries. And he embodied it in his Two Americas speech.
EDWARDS: It seems today we have two Americas with two health care systems: one for the privileged, another rationed by insurance companies. Two public school systems: one for the haves, and one for everybody else. Two tax systems: where the wealthy and corporations pay less, working families pay more. Two governments: one for powerful interests and lobbyists, the other for the rest of us.
JAMIESON: That’s an appeal to something fairly primal about our self-definition. You don’t want to have two Americas, you want to have one. And you don’t want to —
MOYERS: We the people.
JAMIESON: We the people.
MOYERS: One nation.
JAMIESON: And it —
JAMIESON: And that’s what’s clever about the Edwards approach. It basically takes class warfare and rebuts it at a more primal level. It goes back to basic Democratic values. And says, “If you buy his frame of reference, don’t you want one America?” Well, let’s show you have to buy that we’re going to make these changes in order to close that divide.
MOYERS: Even as we speak, on cable channels and broadcast stations in 18 critical states, a new ad is running. Published today, released today by the Bush/Cheney campaign. Let’s take a look at it.
NARRATOR: Leadership means choosing priorities. While campaigning, John Kerry has missed over two-thirds of all votes. He missed a vote to lower health care costs by reducing frivolous lawsuits against doctors. Missed a vote to fund our troops in combat. Yet, Kerry found time to vote against the Laci Peterson law that protects pregnant women from violence. Kerry has his priorities. Are they yours?
MOYERS: Laci Peterson? What is she doing, with all respect, in this campaign?
JAMIESON: The bill at issue would essentially give rights to the fetus — which is the reason that there’s Democratic dissent from it — by suggesting that an act against the pregnant woman, a violent act against a pregnant woman carries a second level of legal responsibility because it’s also an act against the fetus. And as a result, those who support abortion rights believe that it’s an attempt to establish the personhood of the fetus, give the fetus legal standing. And as a result, a first move to encroach on abortion rights.
One of the reasons that this is a powerful ad is that we have the Peterson trial ongoing in the news right now. And so it synergizes the news content with the content in the ad. It’s powerful as well, because whenever you can personalize a legislative issue, you make it easier for people to understand.
You make it more likely that they’re going to remember it. In an environment in which Bush needs to mobilize his conservative base, if they’d voted in the percents that Karl Rove expected them to, there wouldn’t have been a contest that went to the court. Bush would have clearly won the election.
This is an ad about saying to them, “We’re with you, he’s against.” This isn’t really about not showing up for those votes. It’s not, “He didn’t show up for all these votes,” but, “On that one, he showed up, and he cast the wrong vote.”
This is a little like the ad that Johnson ran against Goldwater in 1964 in which Johnson said that Goldwater flew all the way across the country in order to cast a vote against the Civil Rights act.
MOYERS: I remember it well.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you for being with us. I look forward to reading your new book, THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF PARTY POLITICS and I look forward to seeing you right here often between now and the election.
JAMIESON: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: There’s more to come on NOW. Searching for forensic proof of crimes against humanity. How to bring killers to justice in Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda.
KOFF: The bones have gone beyond their politics, their opinions. They simply tell you who they are and what happened to them.
BRANCACCIO: Forensic anthropologist Clea Koff.
MOYERS: When John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate, you might have thought he was taking a page right out of this new book by the journalist and historian, Thomas Frank. It’s entitled WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? Here’s the opening paragraph, quote:
“The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 percent.”
Thomas Frank was puzzled when he came upon that fact in an obscure study of the rural Great Plains, America’s so-called heartland. He had always thought of Democrats as the party of workers, the poor, the left-behind, and he knew Kansas to have been a pioneer in populist challenges to the power of monopolies, cartels, and corporations. What was going on here?
Thomas Frank had left Kansas to earn his doctorate in history at the University of Chicago. His first two books created a lot of buzz — THE CONQUEST OF COOL and ONE MARKET UNDER GOD — and so does his journal, THE BAFFLER. He has just become a Washington editor for HARPER’S magazine. But not before he went back to Kansas for this new book, back to the place he calls “the distilled essence of the country,” to talk to those people with the puzzling voting habits.
Welcome to NOW.
FRANK: Thanks for having me.
MOYERS: The Kansas you describe in here is a major battleground in what you see as a class war going on in America, right?
FRANK: Yeah, that’s right.
This is the fascinating thing about the way class is discussed in America now. And it’s not just in Kansas but everywhere in the country, is that it’s not about economics. It’s about cultural issues. Class is about culture. It’s not about economics, it’s not about — well, I mean it is obviously about, you know, where you work, what kind of money you make. But the way that it affects you, the grievances that you have are cultural ones.
MOYERS: Such as?
FRANK: Abortion is the main one. This is something — it’s divided along class lines in Kansas where the moderate Republicans who tend to be affluent, the people that I grew up around, tend to be pro-choice. The working class Republicans are pro-life.
MOYERS: So what other issues? Abortion?
FRANK: A big one that comes up again and again are issues having to do with schools, in particular in Kansas, evolution. In 1999, the conservative faction of the Republican party decided it was time to revisit the Scopes trial, you know? Revisit the war on evolution. And they approved of new standards for the state, educational standards that left out a lot of the discussion of evolution. And instantly made Kansas the laughing stock of the western world.
And, you know, instead of being instead of being a laughing stock in this matter, Kansas was sort of first. Now there’s many states where this same fight is going on. And what intrigues me about Kansas, and also about the conservative movement nationally, is that you have a lot of the same language, the war against the liberal elite, you know, the issues about patriotism, about gun control, flag burning, whatever it is. The same issues that polarized people back in the 1960s, and they’re going on in the national election now too.
We’re arguing about Vietnam again for Pete’s sake, in this election. Here in the year 2004!
And I call this phenomenon, you know, looking at it from a historical perspective, the “Great Backlash.” Going back to 1968 when it really got its start. This is, you know, something that has gone on for years and years and years and it’s—
MOYERS: But that’s the drama of American politics in the last 30 years.
FRANK: Right. It’s working class people voting for Republicans. That’s —
MOYERS: On issues of culture, you say?
FRANK: On cultural issues.
MOYERS: But doesn’t that mean that the Republicans, the conservatives, have done a better job than the other side of engaging the imagination of the voter?
FRANK: In that sense, oh absolutely. You know, I am forever astonished at the — I’m amazed at the kind of — the work that the Republican party has done to court these voters. And when I met these — I met, you know, certain leaders of the grassroots movement in Wichita. These people didn’t have any funding.
MOYERS: They cared.
FRANK: They cared. They went door to door.
MOYERS: Why did they care so much? What was it?
FRANK: Well, a lot of them are deeply religious people and the abortion issue mobilizes them in a very, you know, in a very profound way.
MOYERS: I remember, what was it, 1991 when the anti-abortion movement led the — had a summer of discontent in —
FRANK: Summer of Mercy. Yeah.
MOYERS: Summer of Mercy in Kansas.
FRANK: That’s right. And that’s when it started, really, when the—
MOYERS: But they organized at the grassroots level. And hundreds if not thousands of Kansans turned out to protest.
FRANK: Oh, tens of thousands.
MOYERS: And that was a turning point, wasn’t it?
FRANK: It was. This is where the people that I’ve been describing started, you know, they would go to the Operation Rescue rallies where you’d have people throwing themselves under the wheels of a doctor’s car, or chaining themselves to a fence of an abortion clinic. And they would sign people up to be precinct committeemen and committeewomen, which is the very lowest level in the American political hierarchy. This is the foot soldiers, you know?
And they took over the Republican party in the state of Kansas from the ground up. And it’s an inspiring story, however you look at it. You can disagree with these people, and I do disagree with them. But it’s an inspiring story, going door to door. One of the guys that I interviewed used to carry around the blanks for party registration in his briefcase all day, every day. And when he’d be talking to somebody on the street and, you know, he’d find out that they were a Democrat. You know, he would talk them into switching their party membership, have them fill out the form. And then he’d take the form over to the, you know, the city hall or wherever it is that you take them. And this is an inspiring story. This is amazing dedication.
MOYERS: You even admire them for taking their religious and moral passions into the precincts of politics, you say that they wind up voting against their own interest because their great concern for culture means that they are ripped off, if I’m summarizing correctly, by the very economic interests that govern this society that they—
FRANK: Well, this is the fascinating thing about this 30 year phenomenon that we’re talking about here, the Great Backlash. Populist conservatism, to put it in a word. And it’s been going on for 30 years.
People have decided that cultural issues outweigh their economic interests. Or they outweigh everything. And they vote for conservatives on this basis, okay.
What’s amazing to me is that the conservatives have made almost no headway in the culture wars. You look at American culture. And I have a certain amount of sympathy for the conservative take in this regard.
Our culture is 100 times coarser than it was when all this began in 1968. The movies are so much more vile. The TV programs are you know, are, I mean, it’s hard to — You turn on the TV, and of course it’s disgusting. I think that these people are right to be disgusted by the world that surrounds them. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
What’s interesting to me is that their leaders make no headway in the cultural wars. Never. They lead their followers out on these campaigns where it’s almost impossible for them to win. And I’ll give you an example. While I was writing the book, the cultural war issue du jour was the Alabama Ten Commandments monument.
MOYERS: Roy Moore.
FRANK: He did this deliberately to provoke a lawsuit from the ACLU. He knew that wasn’t gonna stand. He knew how that issue would end.
He did it to stir up his followers. And the same is true with almost every cultural issue that they’ve chosen. School prayer. There’s no way they’re gonna bring school prayer back.
MOYERS: But you say in the book they lose on economic issues, that they have wound up with lower wages, with less insurance, with inadequate retirement. That they have… In fact, you say conservatives have convinced people to vote against their own economic interests.
FRANK: Right. Well, this is, what’s fascinating is that even as their conservative leaders do nothing on the cultural front, you know, as they fail to make any headway in the cultural wars, they’ve been very effective at changing the way our economy works. And in changing the way that wealth is distributed in America.
Since President Reagan was elected in 1980 has been a time of constant deregulation, privatization, de-unionization. They don’t enforce anti-trust.
And these things have had a very predictable effect. You know, you look at the way the diverging fortunes of the white collar class and the blue collar class, it was perfectly ordinary for a blue collar worker to live in a middle class suburb, live next door to a white collar worker, who didn’t make all that much more money than the blue collar guy. He just had a different kind of work. But the difference between the two economically wasn’t that vast. Well, it is today.
MOYERS: Are the conservative rank and file, who vote their conscience on issues of culture, being betrayed by the upper class of their party?
FRANK: Oh, there’s no question about that. Yeah. Of course they—
MOYERS: Have the economic—
FRANK: Of course they are. There’s no doubt about that. They’re being ruined. They’re being destroyed, as a class. Yes. They’re being… You know, their standard of living is in, you know, is in decline.
MOYERS: But it was Newt Gingrich who said that the Democrats are the enemy, quote, “of ordinary people.” And he got away with it, because the Democrats just rolled over, right?
FRANK: Well, a big part of the problem here is the Democrats themselves, the liberals themselves. And they haven’t fought back on these issues. In fact, they’ve done the contrary.
MOYERS: On economic issues?
FRANK: On economic issues.
MOYERS: Well, they’re afraid of being called class warriors.
FRANK: Yeah, that’s right.
But, you know, when people say, “Well, class should have no place in our politics” — this is usually Republicans who are saying this and they usually say it when Democrats bring things up like the gap between CEO pay and working class pay — then they’ll say, “Well, we shouldn’t— that’s class war, there’s no place for that in American politics.”
But at the same time, these same people use class language all the time. Forever attacking the liberal elite, forever making fun of liberal taste in coffee and in cars. You know, they drive Volvos instead of Chevys, they drink lattes, you know. They eat their fancy French cheese or in the case of John Kerry, they even speak French.
You know, these kind of— they class bait liberals all the time. This is their stock in trade, this is what makes the whole thing go is that they found a way to appeal to class anger. And to express the class grievance without mentioning economics.
MOYERS: Every time a Democrat talks about wages, or inequality, the Wall Street Journal, and other organs of the right—
FRANK: Stand ready to call them class warriors.
MOYERS: Yeah. Yeah.
FRANK: That’s right. But it’s worse than that.
The leadership of the Democratic party decided at some point in the 1980’s that continuing to fight the old fight, the old Roosevelt battle, the old, you know, what the Democrats had been identified with ever since the 1930’s, of fighting for good wages, fighting for an equitable distribution of wealth, fighting for the welfare state, that this had to go. They didn’t want any part of that anymore.
They were gonna move on. They were gonna become new Democrats. And they were going to sign off on the Republican agenda on the economic issues, and fight it out on the culture issues instead. And as a result, you had things like Bill Clinton signing NAFTA.
Bill Clinton agreeing to deregulation of the banking industry. Deregulation of the Telecom industry. And you can go right down the list, you know, failing to enforce anti-trust. Enacting the Republican economic agenda, even while taking a hard stand on the cultural issues, and continuing to fight on those.
MOYERS: Maybe millions of people really did believe that values were more important than retirement, or benefits, or—
FRANK: Well, I tell you, the Democrats have made that choice very easy for them, by failing to battle on those lines. And I’ll give you a very specific example again, drawn from the book. That Wichita, again a city that had a Democratic congressman, and a Democratic mayor back in the ’70s and the ’80s, and that had a lot, still does have a lot of union members, a lot of blue collar voters, and a lot of people, who are natural Democrats; people that ought to be voting for the Democratic party.
MOYERS: On economic issues?
FRANK: On economic issues. But who also are good churchgoing people, and who think abortion is wrong, and this sort of thing. Well, when Clinton signed NAFTA, which was, you remember was a very, very important issue to the labor movement in America, and to working class people generally when Clinton signed off on NAFTA, they said, “You know, why are we voting for the Democrats? They don’t give us anything. They don’t agree with us on anything. They don’t agree with us on the economic issues, or on the cultural issues. We might as well go to the party that agrees with us on the cultural issues.”
There was no longer a distinction on the economic issues. This says essentially values matter most, because there is nothing else out there anymore. The Democrats don’t want to fight on the economic issues anymore.
MOYERS: You write that people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.
FRANK: That’s right. That’s right. Well, what I was thinking of there when I wrote that was again, the great aura of a new economy. Of this beautiful free market, this perfect free market world that we’re always told about, where everything works.
And where, you know, we’re all interconnected globally, and the Web sites, you know, and the fax machines purring, and everything works. But this order is founded on people making a fundamental error. You wouldn’t have this perfect free market system, what certain people believe to be a perfect free market system. Of course, I don’t feel that way. I think there’s been terrible human cost, all this stuff has been achieved.
But for some people, you know, they look out from their beautiful home. And they look out from the top of their office building. And the world is this world makes sense to them. The theory that they have explains everything.
Free market system works. And you know, you can read this every day in the NEW YORK TIMES, or the WALL STREET JOURNAL. This world works. It’s perfect. It’s wonderful. But that world is a political construct. It wouldn’t have happened without Ronald Reagan, without George W. Bush, without Bill Clinton and without Margaret Thatcher, and without the movement that these people have pushed on the world.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, 25 percent of the private sector work force belonged to a labor union. And that had very predictable effects on wages and benefits in America.
Okay? Today it’s I think eight percent. It’s fallen way, way, way down. It’s lower now— about at the same level as it was in the 1920’s, before the great unionizing drive began in the 1930’s, before the New Deal. We’re back to that kind of level. Now, is this because people have chosen that?
No, it’s not. If you do any kind of poll, and you ask people, you know, well, first if you ask them, using the word union in a poll, and you say, “Would you like to have a union represent you at work?” about 40 percent of workers will say, “Yeah, I want that.” Well, only eight percent of them have it. If you ask these same people, “Well, would you” and you leave out the word union, which is you know, a red flag for a lot of people, if you leave that out, and you say, “Well, would you like to be able to bargain with your boss? Would you like to be able to, you know, to have some say in the way the factory, or your work place is run?” they’re like, “Hell, yes. Of course I would.”
Then you’re up to like 90 percent, right? But we don’t get that. You know? It’s next to impossible to organize a union in America today.
MOYERS: You’re saying the political deck is stacked—
FRANK: That’s right.
MOYERS: —against these very people you’re writing about?
FRANK: That’s right. To deny them that choice, to deny, you know, them the ability to choose that option. It’s off the table.
And it’s not off the table because people don’t want it. It’s off the table because we… Our politics and our laws are structured, and have been structured since the Reagan era to make that choice impossible, or very, very, very, very difficult.
I’ll tell you, I have friends who are labor lawyers. And they’ll tell you stories that just make you cry. You know? Somebody tries to organize a union in their factory. And immediately, they’re fired. Now it’s against the law… Or not even a factory, you know? In a warehouse, wherever they work, in an office, wherever they work.
They’re fired. It’s against the law to fire somebody just because they’re trying to organize a union. But the penalties for breaking that law are so tiny, so insignificant that it deters nobody.
MOYERS: So, the answer to your question, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
FRANK: Hey, it’s “What’s the matter with America?”
MOYERS: And what is it?
FRANK: It’s the culture war. The culture war is what’s the matter with us. That we’re fighting over cultural issues.
Fighting back and forth over cultural issues. You know? We fight over the content of Hollywood movies. We vote over the content of Hollywood movies.
Congress has no effect on what they do in Hollywood. We’re fighting over shadow issues, and ignoring the bread and butter things, the things that make, you know, that determine the way that we lead our lives, that determine the quality of life, at the most basic, fundamental level.
Instead we’re fighting over, you know, are there liberals in the Yale English department? You know? Stuff like that.
MOYERS: So, the issues you would like to see us fight over are wages, benefits, health care, retirement?
FRANK: I’m a single-issue voter. And my issue is the economy.
We’ve got this huge problem. We’ve got this free market capitalism, that has these terrible effects. What are we gonna do about it? We don’t discuss those things anymore. They aren’t on the agenda.
MOYERS: The book is, “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?” Thomas Frank. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
FRANK: Well, thank you for having me.
BRANCACCIO: Onward now to a conversation that I think will live with you for a long time. It’s about how bones, human bones, speak.
When I was twelve, I was taken to a site of mass murder. It was a family trip to Europe, only on that day we were not sightseeing in any normal sense. A bus let us off at the remains of Dachau, a Nazi-era concentration camp outside Munich, Germany. The gas chamber disguised as a shower. The ovens. The spots where piles of entangled bodies once lay, people killed by retreating Nazis just before liberation to silence their stories.
I remember feeling angry at my parents for failing to prepare me sufficiently and only much later concluded there is no adequate preparation for this level of horror.
Never again, we say. Yet organized, state-sponsored mass murder is still with us. The current situation in western Sudan reminds us of that.
So does the war crimes trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, delayed yet again in recent days by claims by the defendant that his health isn’t up to it. This is the man who once claimed that the slaughter of 7000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995 was the work of French spies and Bosnian Muslims. The hard evidence from those mass graves shows that Milosevic’s army was to blame.
It’s that kind of hard evidence from mass graves that can lead to some kind of justice. The kind the Iraqi people are currently looking for. Even now there are bodies in mass graves to sift through ahead of any trial for that country’s own brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. A mass grave in the southern city of Hila filled with those executed during a Shiite uprising, the one that followed the first Gulf War in 1991. An estimated tens of thousands of bodies to identify in northern Iraq after the Baathist regime used poison gas to kill Kurds.
Iraq’s new president, Iyad Allawi, says “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of all religions and ethnic groups” may eventually have to be exhumed and examined.
U.S. officials have said that one reason the graves are yet to be examined properly is a global shortage of forensic scientists who do this kind of work.
If you watch CSI, it’s a role you are familiar with… detectives who track clues at crime scenes, evidence that can lead to the killer.
But in the case of mass graves in countries where brutal regimes have long ruled, that evidence is often months or even years old. In that case, it takes an even more specialized skill to read evidence that’s often limited to skeletal remains. That’s where forensic anthropologists come in.
We turn now to someone with just that kind of skill. Clea Koff has all too much experience gathering evidence from mass graves in Rwanda, Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia. The daughter of a Tanzanian mom and an American dad-both of them documentary filmmakers, she lived in Africa for part of her childhood. As a kid she was perhaps over-fascinated with dead birds and such. Then she read a book as a teen, WITNESSES FROM THE GRAVE, about efforts to retrieve evidence from those who disappeared in Argentina under the military junta in the 70s and 80s. It inspired her to study forensic anthropology at Stanford. It was there she decided to take her skills and apply them in the service of international human rights.
Koff now has a book of her own, called THE BONE WOMAN.
Clea Koff, welcome to NOW.
KOFF: Thank you for having me here, David.
BRANCACCIO: And you’ve written that bones, human bones, speak. Help me understand the language.
KOFF: Yes, well, as a forensic anthropologist I effectively identify unidentified human remains. And for me, the human skeleton— well, we actually have an interaction. I can see in the bones whether or not someone was male or female, how old they were, how tall they were, their ancestry or race. There’s a number of different stories that come out, of course, including how someone died and spent their last moments.
BRANCACCIO: It’s really about what, human rights?
KOFF: Well, for me, my interest in forensic anthropology always was in the service of human rights violation investigations. In other words, here in the states, most forensic anthropologists actually work at the medical examiner’s office dealing with one body at a time on a table. The body has been autopsied. You’re trying to determine how someone died, who they were. You’re actually trying to put a name to that body.
Of course, they may have had their human rights violated, but I was interested in areas where there had been state-sponsored violence against civilians.
And that all came down to one book that I read when I was about 18 years old called WITNESSES FROM THE GRAVE. And that describes how the Argentine forensic anthropology team really made the bones speak on the witness stand against the perpetrators during the military dictatorship that killed innocent civilians in the 1970s and 80s.
BRANCACCIO: Let’s talk about Rwanda. Many of us remember the first bulletins that came in back in 1994. The President of Rwanda, his plane was shot down by a missile under suspicious circumstances. Fast-forward, an unimaginable genocide. The Hutu ethnic group against the Tutsi ethnic group. In the end, what, about 700,000 people died?
KOFF: Yes, between 700,000 or maybe even a million people.
BRANCACCIO: So, this cataclysm happens in Rwanda. You come in actually later. What could you possibly do about it?
KOFF: Well, of course, as a forensic scientist, my job begins when people die. So I’m only sent in after the fact regardless of where we are. In our case, the tribunal asked this international team to essentially locate and identify mass graves, related to indictments that the tribunal already had set up and determine who was in these graves, how many men, women and children, how they were killed, and were they non-combatants. That was really our mandate. Quite simple and straightforward.
But it actually provides— I think of it as sort of the most basic level in a pyramid of justice. Did the crime take place? Did a crime against humanity in this case in Kibuye take place? Was murder committed? And that is what we found. Indeed, it was.
BRANCACCIO: You know any family, really all families, experience death. And one of the things that frankly is important, regardless of religion, is, what, a sense of finality. To actually confirm what’s been done, I guess.
KOFF: Yes, I mean, a lot of people in the world are dealing with disappearance. They’re not dealing with knowledge of death. And I think that forensic scientists actually play a role in people not gaining closure — I’m not sure if there is such a thing. But certainly going towards knowing what happened in the past and then dealing with that.
I think a lot of people live with one foot in the past, because they don’t know what happened. Some women in Srebrenica, this is in Bosnia. This is a town where that town fell in 1995.
The women of Srebrenica have recently, I’ve read these quotes in the newspaper, they’ve watched the Slobodan Milosevic trial which is going on right now in the Hague, and they’ve said, “This is great. Milosevic is on trial. But I’d like the bones of my husband, please.”
For a lot of people, it starts with knowledge. That was the same thing here. September 11th, the families who were affected by the plane crashes and the buildings collapsing needed to know what happened to their loved ones, even though they saw with their own eyes these collapses. That was their interest, not an initial move towards retribution.
BRANCACCIO: Let me if I could get you to read a passage here that helps us get a more concrete sense of what you’re up against at one of these scenes. This is in Kibuye, in Rwanda. If you would be so kind as to read that for us.
KOFF: This is, as you describe, from Kibuye which is the first place where we worked in 1996. We had found a number of people in a grave obviously wearing clothing still, because they’d just been put in a grave after being killed.
“Then I thought about the fact that he was wearing two pairs of underwear, two pairs of shorts and pants on top of all of that. Many of the bodies were dressed this way, even children.
“I thought about people leaving their homes, not knowing when they’d be able to return and how they must have figured that wearing a couple of changes of clothes would be their best bet. They took their important papers with them. Why? Because they expected to survive, perhaps in another town, perhaps after returning from a refugee camp.
“Many bodies had keys, the old fashioned kind, worn around their waist on a string. I had heard that a string tied tightly around the waist reduces the sensation of hunger.
“These are the signs of life in a grave, like the woman’s pink necklace, all speaking toward individuality and identity, if only the right person can listen.”
BRANCACCIO: Is that what you’re really trying to do is to re-establish their individuality?
KOFF: Definitely, on the most basic level, we are establishing who each individual is and what happened to them. Now, we can’t always determine who people are, because we need to have relatives or family members still around who can tell us that “Yes, John was 35. Yes, John was this tall, and he broke a leg when he was seven.”
If we don’t have the families to tell us that, then all we have is post-mortem data and no ante-mortem data. And without the two of them, you can get nowhere. In Rwanda, of course, our task was difficult, because the genocide was so complete, particularly in the areas like Kibuye.
BRANCACCIO: How does the information, sorting through these bones lead to something that might even approximate justice?
KOFF: Of course, I worked in the context of the tribunals. Now, the international criminal tribunals set up, were set up in order to identify and prosecute the planners and organizers of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity.
That is their task, and that is what they are working towards. Now, they’re not going after every single person that wielded a weapon in these crimes.
And so in the places where I have worked, there have indeed been trials related to those cases. There have been convictions. My team leader, Bill Haglund, and our chief pathologist have testified. What I find is interesting though is that the forensic evidence is often just about establishing that the crime was committed and moving the trial past the initial months of denial that the crimes were committed.
I think that people think that that’s a small thing. It’s actually a very big thing, because a lot of time could be spent simply arguing about whether or not someone believes a crime took place.
Now, they actually try to, the accused, try to distance themselves for responsibility for the crimes. That’s actually a big step forward.
BRANCACCIO: Well, I think of what you write about in the former Yugoslavia when, in fact, government propaganda, Serb propaganda is beating this drum beat for a denial that any of this ever happened. And then you show up and through your painstaking work, you show what?
KOFF: Well, we have seen very clear evidence that people were, indeed, murdered, even in the cases where people might have been soldiers. Around Srebrenica, the people we saw in the graves had their hands still tied behind their backs with wire. People were blindfolded. Some people appeared to have been made to get into the grave before they were shot, and they were all shot. And I’m talking about fifteen to thirty actual projectiles that we recovered from each body.
So, whoever these people were, whether they are soldiers, whether they are civilians, there are clear laws, the Geneva Convention, international humanitarian law that protects those people’s rights. So that is very clear.
Now, what’s interesting is that even in Srebrenica now, and the Prime Minister, actually said that their public, the Serb public, if there is such a thing, has to be able to face the truth.
And so there’s a point at which the numbers of bodies are adding up. The clear signs of who they are is mounting. The families are identifying them. There’s a point at which you cannot argue with the bodies.
Clyde Snow who’s like my hero basically in terms of forensics. He’s an American forensic anthropologist. He’s the person who started the Argentine forensic team. He once said, “Bones never lie, and they never forget.” I think that’s key. The bones have gone beyond their politics, their opinions. They simply tell you who they are and what happened to them.
BRANCACCIO: You write how blatant it really is ultimately when you dig through one of these graves. Typically when a government does something wrong, it’s about subtle documents or getting one source to testify to something. But at a mass grave, that’s a different order of magnitude altogether.
KOFF: It certainly is. And we saw in the graves particularly in 1996 and 1997 that the crimes have been perpetrated with great arrogance. There didn’t appear to be a sense that anybody would come and look for these bodies after the fact. In other words, the wires were left on people’s wrists. And I’m talking about hands tied behind the back. So these are clear signs.
There were shell casings, cartridges and so forth that were around the grave sites. There had been no attempt to clean up any sign of those bullets being there, and those bullets relate to particular regiments which have particular ammunition during the war. That’s documentary evidence. Of course, the forensics is just working within an entire collection of evidence about particular crimes.
In Kosovo where I worked in the year 2000, there were clear signs that there had been an attempt to actually hide the bodies from forensic evidence. There had been an attempt to burn people, and of course what I read about in the papers, an actual removal of bodies from Kosovo into Serbia in lorries. And those are now being discovered.
BRANCACCIO: What did you conclude though from that shift of strategy?
KOFF: I had always hoped that as forensic science sort of went global that perpetrators might think, “Oh, this is going to be too hard. We won’t kill civilians, you know, as part of our political policy, because there will be these folks who will come and find out the truth later.”
In fact, what I was able to conclude is that there was an attempt to be more wily. Now that is not an improvement but what it shows me again in the traces of behavior is now a sense of culpability. So there is a sense that these people could be shown to have been the victims of a human rights violation. These people whose bodies have been moved, this tells me are those people who were protected by international humanitarian law? Why else would you hide them?
And of course, the perpetrators are quite good at killing unarmed people and civilians, but they’re not so good at hiding yet. They have to pay a lot more people to do the work. They have to pay people to drive the lorries, pay people to tend the burning bodies, you know. We’re mostly water. It takes a lot of effort to actually burn a whole human body. Those people are beginning to talk.
Some people in Kosovo took photographs of what they had in the backs of their lorries, and then they get those photographs out to international media. That’s important.
BRANCACCIO: One of the things about your efforts to catalog the nitty-gritty, the specifics of one of these sites is that it has power to go beyond the more general statements of “A terrible thing happened.” Let me get you, if I could, to read a section here. And it’s actually from the Croatia chapter.
KOFF: Yes. This is a description of some of what we were finding in the grave at Ovcara which was outside of Vukovar where the town had fell in 1991. We were here five years later at a grave which had been protected by U.N. soldiers for all that time.
“Some of the bodies were wearing pajamas. One man had x-ray films tucked down the back of his pink and white-striped terry cloth bathrobe. I couldn’t believe it. Those x-rays were like a message in a bottle to me. Seeing them was like a cross between hearing the dead woman’s voice on the 911 tape back in Arizona and seeing the pink plastic necklace on the woman’s body in Kibuye.
“The x-rays were tucked, hidden in the bathrobe. I didn’t know whether they were his x-rays or whether he had brought them when he was being evacuated from the hospital, because he thought he would need them at the next hospital. Or did he stick them in the back of his bathrobe, because he suspected he would be beaten and they would give him some protection?
“Thinking about that man as I write this makes me cry. But at the time it was as if he had left us a note. Did he suspect that he was going to die, and thus secrete the x-rays to make him identifiable if his body was ever found to help get his body back to his family?”
BRANCACCIO: I mean what you’re finding here is that these people were taken from a hospital to kill. How does it affect you?
KOFF: I had always believed that governments or militaries were capable of killing their own citizens, because I had read it. I knew it existed. To see it, of course, is to be faced with what I think of as the reality of it. We have these people’s deaths, but what we also have is a community of people who are affected by grief and loss that goes on long after trials are over.
It effectively disrupts a lot of people’s lives obviously beyond just those people in the grave.
So, I have, of course, anger, but I have a lot of emotions that tend to go towards sadness and empathy, because I don’t see anybody in Srebrenica or Tuzla or Kibuye as being any different than me on a basic human level. When I’m cold and want to get warm, I’m probably doing more or less the same things that somebody in Tuzla is doing. When I’m hungry and want to eat, it’s the same.
This desire to live, to survive, to love, to work, to have life I think is very much the same. Yes, we can be multi-ethnic. Yes, we can be multi-religious. Yes, we can have differing politics. But I don’t believe that we should divide over them, and I certainly don’t believe that we should kill over them.
BRANCACCIO: The book is called THE BONE WOMAN, A FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST’S SEARCH FOR TRUTH IN THE MASS GRAVES OF RWANDA, BOSNIA, CROATIA AND KOSOVO. Clea Koff, thank you so much.
KOFF: Thank you for having me here.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. We’ll be back next week with our continuing coverage of politics.
MOYERS: We’ll be reporting on the class war in Mississippi. For all of us at NOW, I’m Bill Moyers. See you next week.
BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.
Find out how to fact check campaign ads. America’s culture wars: will they determine the outcome of the presidential election? Punishing war crimes— learn more about how international tribunals work.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.