‘Party Favors: Convention Spending’ and The Wilderness Act at 40

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What you see of the political conventions on television is only part of the story. Behind the scenes and away from the rhetoric at the convention halls, lavish parties sponsored by corporate interests celebrate the union of money and politics. Bill Moyers interviews ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross about his reporting of the close ties between big corporate donors and the elected officials they’re courting and provides a candid look at the parties that the Democrats and Republicans don’t want you to see.

David Brancaccio talks to NOW’s regular analysts about the state of the economy and its implications for the outcome of the elections, and whether the Republicans will be targeting their base or the undecided with their message during next week’s Republican National Convention. Kevin Phillips was the chief political strategist for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 and wrote the bombshell book EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY. Award-winning journalist Michel Martin spent more than a decade reporting on politics at THE WASHINGTON POST and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, where she was White House Correspondent. Currently, she contributes to ABC News’ NIGHTLINE, where she has been for the past decade.

“It’s a deep crisis,” says senior editor of IN THESE TIMES and CHICAGO TRIBUNE op-ed columnist Salim Muwakkil about the plight of black men in the inner city. “Prison occupies too much space in African-American culture. Many young people look at it as a rite of passage.” Bill Moyers interviews Muwakkil about a population he says is being ravaged by an epidemic of incarceration and an issue being ignored by both candidates this election year. A journalist since 1977, Muwakkil’s writing has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK NEWSDAY, BALTIMORE SUN, and THE TORONTO STAR, among others. Muwakkil is also a contributing author to six books, and he lectures frequently on issues of race, culture and politics. You can access the original web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. We begin tonight with money, the political conventions and some travel advice for Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s word that the California governor has gotten a long list of corporations to pay his way to the Republican convention, where he’ll give a primetime address Tuesday night, just a block-and-a-half from here.

The governor’s office says the 350,000 dollar budget for Schwarzenegger’s trip will come from some oil companies, some pharmaceutical companies, a telephone company, a credit card firm and… see if you can discern a trend here: Fox Entertainment, NBC Universal, News Corp, Paramount, Time Warner, Disney and Viacom. The governor says he’s doing it to save the taxpayers money, although the taxpayers will still foot the bill for the Schwarzenegger security detail.

Point number one: 350,000 dollars? Sacramento to New York’s JFK on JetBlue is 470 dollars, roundtrip coach. I found a room in the Super 8 in Times Square — smoking, of course — for 162 plus tax. And if the governor gets hungry, there’s a guy around the corner who makes a decent potato knish for two dollars.

Point number two: that’s a long list of corporations from a governor who promised during his election campaign last fall that he would ignore special interests.

The private sector is picking up the tab for a lot of what goes on at the political conventions, both Republican and Democratic. This includes invitation-only social events — power parties — that have become a key component of a democracy that is too often pay to play. Bill Moyers has been looking into this issue with producer Brenda Breslauer.

MOYERS: They’re ready and waiting in New York. All of the exclusive venues are booked, beginning with the famed 21 Club, “the city’s ultimate experience,” with fine wines galore and more deals over lunch than at a Fortune 500 board meeting. The celebrated Tavern on the Green is reserved; so are landmarks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Central Park Boathouse and Rockefeller Center.

What are they getting ready for? Remember the Democratic convention last month in Boston? More than 200 private parties and events. Look closely. That’s Howard Dean boogying to music at a party thrown by Johnson and Johnson, the drug company. And here’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers flown in especially to play at a benefit gala hosted by the Creative Coalition and the recording industry. And the fellow conducting the orchestra, that’s— you know who that is: Senator Ted Kennedy. The Washington wheeler dealer Vernon Jordan had a front row seat. Kennedy’s party was paid for by not only by big labor — the AFL-CIO — but also big name companies like pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, defense contractor Raytheon and Bank of America.

So what’s going on here?

ROSS: I think it’s clear now that the actual convention proceedings are the sideshow. The real main events are the corporations and the politicians coming together in these excessive, lavish parties.

MOYERS: Private parties.

ROSS: Private parties. You don’t get in without an invitation. And the invitations are traded back and forth like viable pieces of currency.

MOYERS: ABC News correspondent Brian Ross and his investigative team have been crashing these parties at convention after convention reporting on the money trail.

ROSS: What’s really happening is this is a chance for the big money interests to show their appreciation and to make investments in the future for relationships with the people who are very powerful, the people who run the federal government.

MOYERS: And the ordinary delegates, the public, what happens?

ROSS: They’re like extras in a movie. The delegates are there to fill the seats so they look like a lot’s going on. But they’re not invited to these parties.

We were at one party outside the big bash thrown for Senator Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former President. And I was downstairs. And several delegates from Iowa showed up.

And they’d heard about the party. And assumed that because they were delegates they, of course, would be able to attend. And they were turned away at the door as we were and most other people were. And just sort of stunned that they weren’t allowed to go to that party. They thought that as delegates they would be able to. But, in fact, this convention more and more in Boston and here in New York is very much a private affair, invitation only.

MOYERS: Who were these “special interests” in Boston?

ROSS: Every major industry. The pharmaceutical industry, healthcare industry, the railroads, tobacco was there in a smaller role, the recording industry. Every group, every company that has a issue before Congress or before the government. Any industry that’s regulated, they all want something.

MOYERS: An example?

ROSS: The Time Warner company spent, I don’t know, whatever it cost, to put on a blowout fireworks display for Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

And they threw a small, private party for her unannounced. At this outdoor scene with the chairman of Time Warner, Richard Parsons right next to Congresswoman Pelosi. She had her staff and members of the Time Warner staff dodging in front of us so we couldn’t see her face, and making every effort to stay away from our cameras. And this is a woman, Bill, who in Washington, you have a hard time keeping away from cameras.

ROSS: Congresswoman, can we speak with you for just a minute . . .

MOYERS: What was she afraid of?

ROSS: I think she didn’t have a good answer to the question.

MOYERS: And the question was?

ROSS: Question was “Why are you here”? Why are you letting Time Warner spend several hundred thousand dollars to entertain you?

MOYERS: And what does AOL Time Warner possibly want from the United States Congress?

ROSS: Well Mr. Parsons is very, very candid and said, “We want to be able to know who to talk to, and who can talk to us.”

MOYERS: About?

ROSS: Whatever comes up. And they right now have many, many issues, including a federal investigation by the Security Exchange Commission of some of their accounting practices. They have trouble in Washington. And this is how you get out of trouble.

MOYERS: The House Democratic Leader wasn’t the only powerful politician who didn’t want to talk to Brian Ross during the convention. It was hide and seek all week for Washington’s elites. Brian Ross and his crew were ejected from more private parties than you could shake a stick at. And on the way out they found some strange bedfellows.

ROSS: At one point, we began to take a look at what are called these independent groups. It’s a way around McCain/Feingold rules that allow the big-money contributors to continue to give large amounts to specially set up committees that claim they have nothing to do with the Democratic Party.

MOYERS: These are the 527s?

ROSS: Right. Loophole in the IRS tax code, 527. And what we discovered was that the five— the biggest of these 527 committees had set up shop right in the Four Seasons, which was the main hotel for the top Democratic money people.

And so, I took a little tourist camera and walked around, and met some of the big money people who said hello, and then wandered into the lounge of this group called ACT, one of these 527s.

VOICEOVER: This morning, the ACT hospitality lounge was full of Democratic donors, and there appears to be a close relationship between the people running ACT and the Democratic Finance Committee.

WOMAN: If I could just escort you outside.

ROSS: They may say they’re independent. But clearly, they’re not.

MOYERS: So, these 527 committees can only raise money because they proclaim to be independent—

ROSS: Independent.

MOYERS: —of a political party?

ROSS: Nothing to do with the Democratic Party.

But just the proximity alone told me more than I needed to know about this supposed independence.

MOYERS: You got your hands on one of the invitations to the Caribbean beach bash. Tell me about this.

ROSS: Well, this was Senator Breaux’s invitation. It came like it was some treasure map. And, in fact, inside— I wasn’t allowed inside. I was among the reporters kept outside. But we managed to get somebody inside. And it was quite a scene.

Senator Corzine of New Jersey showed up. And it was an amazing moment because I happened to have in my ear I could hear what was happening in the convention. And I saw Senator Corzine get out of his limousine with his entourage. And Senator Kennedy almost at that very moment was speaking about the excesses of Enron under the Bush Administration and the Democrats would never allow that kind of thing to happen.

KENNEDY: We wouldn’t have had the excesses of Enron.

ROSS: And yet here is Senator Corzine arriving at this million dollar-plus party thrown by the biggest, most powerful corporations for one of his fellow members.

CORZINE: I was told there were TVs inside.

MOYERS: But were they watching? Let me make sure that I understand this. Senator Kennedy is speaking on the floor of the convention against special interests, against the power of corporations. And Senator Corzine, who is one of the powerful Democratic senators and chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee—

ROSS: That’s right.

MOYERS: —raising money for Democratic senators around the country.

ROSS: That’s right.

MOYERS: —is coming to a private party that’s going on simultaneously—

ROSS: Right.

MOYERS: —with the speech that Kennedy is giving on the floor?

ROSS: That’s right.

MOYERS: If there’s nothing untoward going on, if there’s nothing but fun happening out there, why are they keeping you and other reporters out?

ROSS: I think there are certain scenes they would just as soon not have broadcast. Remarkable scenes of Senator Breaux, who looks like he likes a party, playing the washboard. He had a washboard hung over his chest. And this at the same time that Candidate Obama—

MOYERS: Barack Obama, the new star.

ROSS: The great speech of the convention is taking place.

OBAMA: I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless.

MOYERS: It wasn’t until I watched your reports on ABC that I realized that while the convention was going on, many of the elected officials are at these private events. What does that tell you?

ROSS: That tells me what are they there for? Senator Baucus was at this—

MOYERS: Montana.

ROSS: —fancy restaurant in Boston. The convention was underway. The American Gas Association which apparently put up some $600,000 as its entertainment budget at the Republican and Democratic Convention. Was spending some of it at a restaurant called Torch. Great restaurant in Boston. And its top people and Senator Baucus were all there together as the convention was underway.

MOYERS: Is it a coincidence that Senator Baucus is from Montana and the gas industry wants to drill a lot more for gas in Montana?

ROSS: I don’t think it’s a coincidence. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee.

MOYERS: And what’s this?

ROSS: This was the invitation to a party for the blue dog Democrats—

MOYERS: Southern Democrats.

ROSS: Southern Democrats.

MOYERS: Conservative—

ROSS: Conservative Democrats. And it was with the Neville Brothers. Lot of money spent here. And everybody—

ROSS: American Hospital, Met Life, Home Depot, Edison Electric, Distilled Spirits Council, the liquor industry, Clear Channel, Comcast, Altria, that’s Phillip-Morris, that’s its new name. Every single company or trade group here has a major issue before Congress.

MOYERS: Many of these companies you just named and others paid for big parties at the Democratic Convention. And they’re doing the same thing for the Republican Convention. How do you explain that?

ROSS: Well, there’s no ideology here involved. They want to have their bets placed on both the red and the black. They want their bets placed on both parties. Whoever’s going to be in power, they’re going to have a say.

MOYERS: What do you expect when the Republicans gather here in New York next week?

ROSS: I think they’ll easily match. They will no doubt outdo the Democrats. The Republicans are not burdened by any notion of trying to say we’re against this. The Democrats have a problem with hypocrisy.

They say they oppose the influence of big money in politics, yet they take it. Republicans have no such inhibitions. And they don’t even begin to think about this being a problem.

MOYERS: I understand the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Michael Oxley, is being thrown a big party by the financial industry here in New York. Why would they be doing that?

ROSS: The financial services industry has so many issues before someone like Oxley. He’s a master of this. He can control which bills get through committee, which bills are considered. There are small provisions sometimes in these bills that mean literally billions of dollars for major corporations, things we’ll never even find out about.

MOYERS: The MBNA America Bank is honoring Roy Blunt? Who is Roy Blunt?

ROSS: Roy Blunt is the number three Republican of the House.

MOYERS: Very powerful?

ROSS: Extremely powerful. He is very close to Majority Leader DeLay. And MBNA is simply the largest credit card issuer in the country. And they have hundreds of issues before Congress.

MOYERS: Among the many parties reportedly taking place in New York next week, the Edison Electric Institute, Southern Co, and 28 other sponsors will host a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert this week for two of their powerful friends in the Senate, southerners Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss.

And the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Mining Association and the American Gas Association will be throwing a honky-tonk salute for Texas congressman Joe Barton, chairman — surprise, surprise — of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees their industries.

MOYERS: But is it possible that what they all they want is a good time?

ROSS: Well, I keep asking that question, you know? What’s wrong with a good party? And the fact is that’s what’s really happening here is money for access.

One lobbyist put it quite clearly. Said, “We are dancing together. And it’s not quite clear who’s leading. But we are dancing together and that’s how the game works.”

MOYERS: Ross says that’s why some 20 companies were willing to sponsor that Caribbean beach party in Boston for retiring Senator John Breaux of Louisiana. The companies were approached by lobbyists, one of whom used to be Breaux’s chief of staff, to contribute to the party in honor of Breaux.

MOYERS: Why would these big companies be throwing a party for an outgoing senator?

ROSS: Well, that was a huge thank you. One big thank you by 20 major corporations who are all approached to put up the money for this blow-out bash with the dancers on stilts and the Caribbean bands.

MOYERS: Corporations didn’t come to him?

ROSS: Didn’t go to him. They were approached and asked if they wanted to contribute. And the companies say they can’t really say no. Do you want to run the risk of offending Senator Breaux?

And it’s the same thing with the Republicans. Senator Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate, has done the same thing for the big bash he’s planning to throw here in New York.

MOYERS: There is a solicitation from Senator Frist’s fundraisers that actually say this party is hugely the success of this party is hugely important to Senator Frist.

ROSS: And that’s a message that no lobbyist or no corporate executive is going to ignore. That means if he asks, you’d better say yes if you want to do business with him. If you want to offend him, go right ahead. But nobody really wants to do that who has issues before Congress.

MOYERS: Well, help us to understand this because the Frist invitation says $250,000 will get you ten tickets and several other little benefits. And it says that the funds that this money will go to the global HIV/AIDS campaign. What’s going on there?

ROSS: This is a new— I would call it a scam. They have created charities which essentially will become fronts for lavish parties at the convention. And the Republicans are in the forefront here. Senator Frist’s charity is run by the same people who run his political campaign.

It has no office. It has no staff. It has no history of having any events prior to this or any events scheduled in the future. And the people in the watch charities say this is an outrageous example of how the tax laws are used because charities get certain special benefits and they’re very hard to regulate. And by calling yourself a charity, he’s able essentially to throw all this huge party for all his friends, impress his fellow senators. And, in fact, the companies that give the money will find it to be tax deductible.

MOYERS: Tax deductible.

ROSS: It’s a contribution to charity.

MOYERS: Even though it’s benefiting a politician.

ROSS: That’s right.

ROSS: This is a way to get around the restrictions imposed by McCain-Feingold on soft money. Now, certainly some money seems to be going to some AIDS operation. I’m not sure what it is. They’re not sure what it is. You ask them, they say, “Well, we’re going to figure that out.” But the fact is the intent here is not to raise lots of money for AIDS. The intent is to throw a big event for Senator Frist. Make him a big man here in New York at the convention.

MOYERS: And what do they ultimately get from that?

ROSS: Well, they get Senator Frist remembering who they were. “We gave to your charity. And we want to come by and see you and talk about an issue that’s of importance to us.” No one’s saying, “I want your vote on this issue.” This is more about the access game in Washington. The ability to have time with Senator Frist which is very valuable.

I doubt that most of Senator Frist’s constituents would have the same access that some of these big companies will have after they give money to his charity, the ones very important to him.

MOYERS: And this gift is tax deductible? Ultimately, the taxpayer is going to pick up the tab, right?

ROSS: Best I know, the contributions to these newly-created charities, absolutely tax deductible. And the other money is spent as part of a business expense.

Same thing as hiring a lobbyist, also deductible, a business expense. It’s money that is in the millions of dollars, tens of millions. And despite all the reforms, all the talk about trying to end the influence of corporate money. There is no requirement for these companies to ever, ever reveal how much they’re spending.

MOYERS: Brian Ross, thank you very much and ABC News, for doing this.

ROSS: Thank you very much.

BRANCACCIO: Brian Ross will be all over town next week, crashing A-list parties and watching as money and politics mingle.

You can see his series “The Money Trail” each night on World News Tonight, as part of ABC News coverage of the Republican National Convention.

BRANCACCIO: So, the money pours into the democratic process from organizations with political agendas. Let’s face it, each of us is a “special interest” but to paraphrase ANIMAL FARM, it’s clear that some special interests are more equal than others.

Joining us now to talk about all that and more are two regular contributors to NOW, Michel Martin and Kevin Phillips. Michel Martin is a correspondent with ABC News. She covered her first convention back in 1988.

Kevin Phillips was on the floor of the 1968 Republican National Convention as Richard Nixon’s 27-year-old expert on voting patterns. He’s been an independent voice and author ever since. Good to have you here.

MICHEL MARTIN: Great to be here.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: So, Kevin, you’ve actually yourself been in some of these gala, smoke-filled events at a convention.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: As infrequently as possible.

BRANCACCIO: But when you see a piece like this, money in politics, that won’t come as a shock to you. But what’s different now in 2004 with this nexus of money in politics?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Oh, I think it’s more blatant. It’s something that people really sense. The cost of elections is so high relative to ever before. That now money is needed to get in there and dominate it. And as a result the politicians need the money from the people who want to give it to them in order to get the influence. So, it’s a vicious cycle. I– obviously, you’ve always had corruption in Washington or any other country. It’s just that it’s mega-corruption now.

MICHEL MARTIN: Well, one of the other things that have changed is that the parties have become the point, in fact, of the conventions. The conventions don’t have a decision making role the way they used to. And everything that’s important to decide has been decided long ago.

So, really what this is a get together. It’s a way for the party to showcase its talent. And it’s a way for people of influence to get together and have face time with each other.

You know, the media organizations dole out their share of free shrimp too. I mean, one of the big parties that Brian Ross talked about in the piece was a party given by Time Warner which is a media organization. They have interests.

We all have interests. And this is the way these interests tend to meet. And, you know, it’s for everybody’s– it’s perceived to be for everybody’s mutual advantage.

People want to build relationships. That’s what it’s all about. Reporters want to build sources too. And media interests also have interests in Washington that they lobby on.

BRANCACCIO: But just so we’re clear, there some things that should go on inside the convention hall. I was looking at some of the headliners here, these little head– Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, Arnold from California, even a Democrat, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. These are not the hard core conservatives. I’m not seeing– oh, Tom Delay’s name on here. What’s going on, Kevin?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, they’re in the control room. They don’t need to be at the podium. You don’t want all these– soccer moms in Long Island seeing Tom Delay without a lot of preparation.

You don’t want– single mothers in the San Fernando Valley in California seeing Jerry Falwell on a day when he sees a conspiracy from all the evil Islamics. So, they’re smart. They’re keeping them under wraps.

MICHEL MARTIN: Well, in addition to the parties and the free shrimp, these conventions are television shows. They’re television shows about politics. So, in part, what this is about is bringing out the most TV friendly people from each party.

BRANCACCIO: But they could have done it differently. I mean, the other way to get elected isn’t to use this television platform to get the undecideds. You could have just thrown red meat at your base over four nights. They’re just choosing not to do that.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, in a sense, they are. Because the red meat is the whole identification with 9-11 and Bush is– what he would sort of regard as the prime moment in his political career. And the whole set of applause lines and psychologies of the war against terror and that’s why they’re in Manhattan. And that’s why they’re going to be there later in the summer than anybody have ever gone to a convention to try to–

BRANCACCIO: Well–we looked it up. Till about– since 1952, every convention has been in July and August until this one which flops over a bit, I guess, closer to 9-11 right?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Yes, because 1952 we had televisions. But not everybody had a television then. And– it’s a television game now. And they’re there because they want the television image of George Bush and the terrorist issue and standing up for Americans, chasing all these guys back to their caves. Never mind he never found the right cave.

So, that this is an important thing for them. It’s a big thing. And it’s for their base. And I think it’s for men who are getting a little marginal because they don’t think he’s terribly competent.

MICHEL MARTIN: You know, I think this is more high stakes poker than perhaps, you know, we’re all acknowledging just as it was high stakes poker for the Democrats to place so much emphasis on John Kerry’s record as a Vietnam veteran, his identity as a war hero.

That was a gamble for the Democrats. They thought that was necessary to do– to establish that they had credibility on national security issues which is considered a threshold.

Similarly, I think this is a challenge for the Republicans, because on performance– I mean, George Bush can’t be reintroduced to the American public. People know him. He has a record to run on. And so- you know, it invites a referendum on his performance. Are you safer today than you were four years ago? Do you feel safer? Do you think that America is actually safer. And those questions have to be asked and will be asked.

BRANCACCIO: What about broadening the tent. Remember back in the Republican Convention of 2000. They had Congressmen JC Watts. They had Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, I guess, a bid to put people of color on television–

MICHEL MARTIN: Sure, sure.

BRANCACCIO: –in a prominent role? How’d it work?

MICHEL MARTIN: You know, what’s interesting is that they actually had broadened their tent on the floor. What’s interesting about 2000 is that there was a very diverse– showcase of performers on stage. In fact, some of us were joking there was like EBONY showcase, you know, EBONY Magazine Showcase.

I mean, you had all these African-Americans up there who– you know, like Colin Powell who’s obviously a big star, was at one time one of the most popular Republicans in the country, Condoleezza Rice. This year, the number of African-American delegates to the Republican Convention has actually doubled from what it was four years ago. So, while they’re probably be a little less diversity on the stage, there’s actually more diversity on the convention floor. So, it actually is a more inclusive party than it was four years ago as evidenced by who’s representing those– the– the voters.

BRANCACCIO: But again, it didn’t really seem to work last time. What was it about eight percent–

MICHEL MARTIN: No, it didn’t work.

BRANCACCIO: –of the African-American vote went to the Republicans?

MICHEL MARTIN: No, it didn’t work. I mean, because– George Bush actually got a smaller percentage of the African-American vote than his father did– which is hard to do. But– and it seems unlikely that he will improve his chances this time.

But what he does want to do is at least blunt the enthusiasm that African-Americans have for the Democrats. That’s also important. Because in an election that’s expected to be as close as this one is, every vote counts.

And so the Democrats are trying very hard to get out there expected voters. And all George Bush really wants to do is to minimize African-American enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket. He’s not really hoping that people will vote for him. He’s just hoping that the people who are on the fence won’t be as excited about the Democratic ticket and frankly might stay home.

BRANCACCIO: He might have a bigger shot though with Hispanics when– for instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican at that recall last year about– a third of the Hispanic vote went to him.

MICHEL MARTIN: Maybe but– and, in fact, in Texas, George Bush did pretty well among Hispanic voters. And he certainly made an impressive bid to court that constituency. But this is where the real world steps in. The poverty figures that came out this week show that Hispanics were among the groups that suffered an actual loss of real income over the last three years. That their economic status is quite precarious. And the degree to which this elections a referendum on the economy or how people feel that they’re own economic fortunes are fairing, you know, one can anticipate that the President will not do that well with that constituency.

BRANCACCIO: Kevin, you saw these figures. The Census Bureau is set to release some figures about poverty, about health care insurance, typically would come out in September, kind of close to the election. Magically, the Census Bureau releases it in the last couple of days. It is not pretty reading. 1.3 million more Americans have fallen into poverty.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Yes and it’s a pattern that’s been growing for three years. And the whole notion of compassionate conservatism was kind of thrown out the window with figures like this. Because you can put them up against the enormous benefits to the people at the top, the top one percent of Americans who’ve been the targets of most of the regulatory and tax policy benefits.

And it’s just been an enormous contrast. And people just don’t think that the people in the middle and poor people have been getting anything out of this administration. The thing to remember here is that this has some uniquely Bush economic characteristics.

Because when his father was in there, you had a lot of the same things. You had major problems with deficits, both trade and domestic. You had the middle class squeeze and the loss of jobs. You had this sense that people in the stock market were doing well. But ordinary people weren’t.

And a lot of the same thing has happened again. But the recovery in this administration under George W, has been even more lopsided. And the statisticians have been amazed to find out that more benefit in the increase in the national income numbers has gone to corporate profits than to wages and salaries. And it’s the first time that that’s happened in a long, long time. So, what the people see is– really what the economy is. It’s a two tier economy, terrific for the people at the top, very soft for the people in the middle.

MICHEL MARTIN: One of the ways in which the middle class is clearly being squeezed is health care. I mean, that’s one of the other– statistics that came out this week–

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, 1.4 million more Americans without health care insurance bringing the total in this latest survey to 45 million Americans.

MICHEL MARTIN: And the reason that that’s important is that– some of it– a number of the people who are going without health insurance could afford it. These are not the poorest of the poor. If you are the poorest of the poor, you could be covered by one of the government funded insurance programs.

What’s happened here is that people who are above the poverty level, sometimes two or three times above the poverty level are finding the health insurance premiums so expensive that they’re taking the risk of going without. And now that might be fine if you’re healthy, if nothing happens to you, if– you know, you happen not to get into a car accident or a bike accident. But one thing like that could push you right over the edge.

And that is where that is a prime opportunity for the Democrats. Both– you know, parties, the Republicans and the Democrats have plans. The question is do people believe they’re credible.

Do they believe that they are something that is actually going to happen. And is John Kerry making a convincing case that he is going to get this problem taken care of. And I don’t know that he’s really made an effective argument so far.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I was reading no less than Pat Buchanan writing in the AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE. He was talking about this kind of data in which– if you adjust for inflation, earnings for non-management employees dropping 1.1 percent in June. And he was talking about two Americas.

But maybe this isn’t an opportunity for the Democrats, yeah, there are two Americas, 50 million voters pledged to the Republicans, 50 million voters pledged to the Democrats. This kind of data may not move anybody out of those categories.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the reason why the two Americas thing is interesting is because you also have two Americas in terms of campaign contribution. You have the Democrats who take from the people with the money and the Republicans who take from the people with the money. And they’re two Americas that are taking from the same slice of upper bracket America.

And the Democrats don’t want to articulate a lot of these things. Okay, you can talk about them loosely but big contributors won’t blame you too much. But here you’ve got a Pat Buchanan talking.

And I’ve written books about this. Ross Perot attacked on this issue. John McCain, we all come from Republican backgrounds. Where were the Democrats who were willing to buck the people the fund roll all these fat cat parties? Because I can name Republicans who are. Where are the big name Democrats who are going to tell the American people what’s being done to them candidly.

BRANCACCIO: You’d think that if perhaps the Democrats could learn from the way the Republicans manage, for instance, these conventions. Did you see how the draft Republican platform has come down? It was described by columnist Robert Novak as kind of a Manhattan Project. Super-secret. And the Bush Administration essentially delivered it. Rather different from the way the Democrats seem to have been working.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, that’s what they do. They like secrecy. They don’t want their records out. They don’t want anybody to find out what they discussed at meetings. They don’t want anything done in the open light. They like it done in the back rooms.

They clearly are not people who love to have discussions of policies in an open democratic arena. That’s not what makes them tick.

MICHEL MARTIN: Well, but that’s not what the platform is for. I mean, the platform is for the little in group. I mean, that’s who it’s for. I mean, it’s to appease, you know, your key constituencies. That’s the reason that the platform endorses a Constitutional amendment– to outlaw same-sex marriage or defining marriages between a man and a woman which is something that is, you know, not universally approved of by the party, by people in the field.

I mean, it takes a certain position on stem cell research which is certainly not a position that all rank and file Republicans agree with. It’s for the base. That’s what it’s for. I mean, how many people actually read the thing?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Platforms used to be important. I mean, you can go back and look at old conventions and serious things were fought out. But in the television age it isn’t fought out anymore. It’s all propaganda. And it’s all put together in a way to sell the nominee and sell the Vice-Presidential nominee and the whole selection process. And what a wonderful America and what a wonderful life. And all this great history and all these great things. And the platform, I mean, that– its not worth anything in terms of pizzazz.

MICHEL MARTIN: No, no, it’s about television. I mean, this is what this convention– that’s what conventions are about. This is what it’s about. It’s all about television. That’s what the parties, the free shrimp parties are all about. They’re about raising enough money to get your message on television. So this to me shows you the degree to which it’s really all about the media.

The money’s about the media. It’s all about what kind of a television performer you are. That’s what campaigns have turned into.

BRANCACCIO: We started by talking about some of the social events that surround this convention. Just before we go I wanna mention– just– you cannot miss. I was reading The WALL STREET JOURNAL this morning, a little tiny squib. The Great American Farm Breakfast will be held sponsored by the Fertilizer Institute. I think proof positive that politicians really are deep in it now. All right.


BRANCACCIO: Michel Martin, Kevin Phillips, thank you so much.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Good to see you.

BRANCACCIO: Somewhere it’s been said that it’s the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics — that is, to see the human reality behind the numbers.

So consider these statistics: half a century ago, there were fewer than 100,000 African Americans behind bars. Today, that figure is nearly 900,000. On any given day, one out of ten black men under the age of 40 is in jail or prison. A survey of African American males in their early 30’s who did not finish high school found that 60% had done time in prison.

And then this: since 1995, only 38% of black males in Chicago graduated from high school. That last statistic comes from a recent column by Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor at IN THESE TIMES magazine in Chicago and a contributing columnist to the CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

A veteran of five years in the Air Force and once the managing editor of the country’s largest black-owned newspaper, he returns often to the story of what’s happening to young African American men. His work has won him many awards, including the Studs Terkel Award for Journalistic Excellence. Salim Muwakkil was in New York the other day to talk with Bill Moyers.

MOYERS: Here you are between two conventions with both candidates— all four candidates out on the campaign hustings. What are you not hearing from the candidates that you wish you were hearing?

MUWAKKIL: I’m not hearing anything about the crisis in the African-American community. And it is in deep crisis. Primarily, that the contours of the crisis are basically defined by the incarceration epidemic.

MOYERS: The number of black men in jail, prison.

MUWAKKIL: In jail, in jail. And that is, I think, actually a social catastrophe right now.

And no one seems to be paying attention to it. Many of the politicians turn away from it. Because to give it any attention give the impression that they’re soft on crime. And that’s—

MOYERS: Or a bleeding-heart liberal? How do you talk about these issues without being accused of being a bleeding-heart liberal?

MUWAKKIL: You have to simply point out how society suffers from the waste of these human resources. I mean, these are people who could contribute great things to our culture. When you think about all of what’s being lost, how the enormous energy that these young people have is being wasted and the effect that it has on the culture.

MOYERS: What do you mean?

MUWAKKIL: Well, a lot of it’s sartorial influences — the pants, the baggy pants and whatnot, these are all derived from prison requirements, you know. You can’t wear belts in prison. You have to— you can’t wear laces in your shoes in prison. And for, you know, these are the same kinds of trends that are big in the hip-hop community. Prison occupies too much space in African-American culture. Young people, many young people, look at it as a rite of passage.

MOYERS: Prison?


MOYERS: What do you mean a rite of passage?

MUWAKKIL: Well, they expect to go. They talk about the gang influences in various prisons, the colors of various prisons. The boxing stances of various prisons, each certain institutions have certain walks, certain styles of talking or rapping. And all of this was known to young people. I mean, these are the kind of concerns that divert their attention from what really could be more productive.

MOYERS: You started out as a reporter for the Associated Press many years ago.

MUWAKKIL: Many years ago.

MOYERS: And I know that you have never lost that “shoe leather” approach to journalism. Can you describe for me what’s the raw meeting of life in the Chicago inner city? What is life like for these young people there?

MUWAKKIL: It’s really distressing for me in many ways, because there are many success stories. And I don’t want to be one to ignore those success stories. Many, many African Americans complain that the media often ignores those success stories.

But if you look at the general situation in Chicago, you find these communities where once— that attracted African Americans from the South primarily because of the industry, steel mills, slaughter houses, all of those industries are gone, completely gone.

And so the black people who are there because of these industries have had to make do with much less— much fewer employment possibilities.

And because of that the crime rate has changed. No longer are people leaving the streets at night to go to bed to get up to go to work. You know? Their children don’t see the social disciplinary that is required by an employed community.

You know, taking care of your children, taking care of the yard, taking care of the house.

Many of the families are fractured. There are far too many female-headed families.

There very much— very much fewer black men who are available as marriage partners, because of the criminal justice intrusion into the community, the lack of economic opportunity has really depleted the stocks of marriageable males.

MOYERS: Is it difficult to talk about this. Because on the one hand you are describing a reality you know, you see as a journalist, as a member of the Chicago community. On the other hand, you’re talking about people in ways that confirm what a lot of people who don’t like those people see them as being?

MUWAKKIL: Yes, it’s a balancing act that you have to strike. I’m not going to ignore or underplay the role that we have in our own liberation, that black people have. There are things we have to do, as simple as that as Bill Cosby said, I mean, quite frankly.

But it’s odd that Bill Cosby should get so much grief for this. Because people have been saying this for many years. Malcolm X said it. Louis Farrakhan says it virtually every week. You know, get up. Do something black people. Do something.

And one of the reasons that Bill Cosby was raked across the coals is because that gives racists the excuse they need to, you know, to continue their biased ways. It provides arguments that they don’t have to make.

MOYERS: So, how do we talk about it in a political year that you think might move us to some kind of action?

MUWAKKIL: Bill, you know, that’s really— that is the $64,000 question. How do you, what vocabulary do you use to inform Americans without making them feel put upon or set upon or guilty or unfairly criticized?

And that’s why I think people are hopeful of developments like the rise of Barack Obama. Because he’s managed a way to say certain things that are not threatening to people.

OBAMA: If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

MUWAKKIL: He’s a bit exotic. You know, white Americans don’t have as much problem with exotic black people as they do with domestic black people. And he has that exotic quality.

You know, he lived in Hawaii for a while. He lived in Indonesia. And he, you know, he’s been to Harvard as well. So, that’s part of it.

OBAMA: The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.

MUWAKKIL: Barack is really an embodiment of our hybridity, an embody of our multi-cultural nature. He can look at a white couple, and he sees images of his mother and his grandparents in that.

And people can look at him and they feel that he’s part of them. You know, he represents their interests. And he can look at someone who’s black and they get the same feeling. So, he is a very special case, in that he embodies this notion of multi-culturalism. But Barack doesn’t avoid race. He embraces his racial identity. He’s not one of these so-called post-race candidates who say that they’ve transcended it all and they’ve gone on to a colorblind Nirvana.

MOYERS: Isn’t Brown becoming the new American flavor?

MUWAKKIL: It would appear that way wouldn’t it? You look at some of the new sex symbols, J. Lo and what not. I mean, when I was growing up, all we had was Marilyn Monroe and you know, Jayne Mansfield. You know, now there’s a much wider variety of—

MOYERS: Jayne Mansfield, I hadn’t thought about Jayne Mansfield in several minutes. But, so you’re saying the metaphor is changing?

MUWAKKIL: Yes, it is. It is. Our notion of beauty is being expanded. I mean, the things that a lot of the multi-culturalists talked about is really happening in this country.

MOYERS: I noticed that John Kerry often refers in his speeches to people of all colors. He doesn’t talk about black Americans. He talks about people of all colors. Is black pass— now?

MUWAKKIL: Yea, right. That’s what a lot of people would like that to be the case. And I think it’s dangerous to begin thinking in those terms. Because a lot of unfinished business that has yet to be done, and if we allow ourselves to simply skip over that unfinished business, it will manifest itself in some socially destructive way, some debilitating way in the future.

MOYERS: Rightly, you say that you don’t hear any of this kind of discussion coming from either the Kerry-Edwards camp or from the Bush-Cheney camp. Is our political system legitimate today? Is it failing us?

MUWAKKIL: It’s failing us in many respects. And I think that we won’t recognize the extent of that failure until some cataclysm happens in this society. I think we’re headed toward that.

MOYERS: Cataclysm that’s a—

MUWAKKIL: There will be some prison uprising first of all to kind of bring our attention to this enormous prison population that we’ve developed. Because we simply can’t go on like this. It’s ghastly.

We can’t go on. There has to be a cataclysm of some sort to wake us up to what we’re doing to ourselves as a society.

MUWAKKIL: And I just wonder how it’s going to manifest itself.

MOYERS: Salim Muwakkil, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.

MUWAKKIL: Thank you very much for inviting me.

BRANCACCIO: In June, I reported on the debate about regulating the mercury that spews from coal-fired power plants.

Well, there’s an update. You better think before you eat if you catch your dinner in the nation’s lakes and rivers.

In fact, according to a new Environmental Protection Agency survey, last year 45 states issued health advisories about mercury contaminated fish. The EPA chief himself said Tuesday, “Mercury is everywhere. The more waters we monitor, the more we find mercury.”

And that’s not the only news about our natural heritage and the legacy we leave our grandchildren. The LOS ANGELES TIMES reported this week that soon after moving into the White House, the Bush administration quietly set up a task force that acts as a complaint desk for industry, passing energy company concerns directly to federal management and employees in the field. Since then, the administration has pushed hard to open up a lot of untouched land to oil and gas exploration.

And all of this comes on the anniversary of a law meant to keep us from screwing up nature.

LYNDON JOHNSON: This reflects a new and a strong national consensus to look ahead, and more than that, to plan ahead—

BRANCACCIO: Next week, it’ll be exactly 40 years since President Lyndon Johnson put his signature to the Wilderness Act. Congress had passed it with a huge majority, and then in a bi-partisan affair at the White House, a few strokes of the presidential pen made it official.

Nine million acres in the U.S. Got the designation “wilderness,” land to remain untrammeled by humans forever. We could visit, but we couldn’t mess.

Here’s a piece: California’s John Muir Wilderness. In the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the peaks rise up to 14,000 feet. Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, some of these grand trees are 500 years old.

Every president since Johnson has added to America’s wilderness. Jimmy Carter brought the most land under protection, 66 million acres. Ronald Reagan added the most areas, 267 pieces of wilderness in all. Today 106 million acres of land are designated wilderness and across the country there are efforts underway to add more. But change is in the wind.

The Bush administration has re-written the rules affecting how land becomes part of the federal wilderness. Now, state and local interests have a bigger say in the fate of those lands, making it easier to cut, build on or drill them before the protective wilderness label is applied.

Visit any of these targeted places and you see the stakes. Utah’s Fisher Towers and Red Rock Canyons, stark and alien, and ancient.

Six million acres of unspoiled land here were candidates for inclusion in the national wilderness; now they are open for oil and gas drilling.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the first National Forest in the northeast, have also been opened, no longer protected by rules against new roads.

So savor the serenity of Wyoming’s Red Desert, one of the few high deserts in North America. 50,000 acres of proposed wilderness here may become a gas well field.

And 500 gas wells are also proposed for the eastern side of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, a place the early Spanish pioneers called Valle Vidal, the valley of life.

The changes in policy mean that across the country, the destiny of tens of millions of acres of public lands are at stake.

So soak this in: what you’re looking at isn’t as immutable as it looks. Once trees are cut, roads built or the wells drilled, lands like these can no longer be added to the national wilderness. From forever wild to never wild, reversing the trend of 40 years.

BRANCACCIO: Here’s what to keep an eye on: President Bush’s use of new administrative rules that don’t require congressional approval, rules that can permanently alter America’s landscapes.

And there’s something else: the President has placed in top administration jobs people who once worked for industry as lobbyists, lawyers, or company advocates. An investigation by the DENVER POST found that altogether, in one area of government after another, the President has more than one hundred high level officials deciding federal policy for the industries they once represented. Says the DENVER POST: they knew which administrative and policy changes to make because they had pushed for them as industry advocates.

That’s it for now. Bill Moyers and I will be back next week for politics and the Republican National Convention. I’m David Brancaccio.

Thanks for joining us.

This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.

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