Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sunday Reading

  • Frank Rich lets us in on a little bit of news: it’s not all about Newsweek.

    In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Fareed Zakaria wrote a 6,791-word cover story for Newsweek titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” Think how much effort he could have saved if he’d waited a few years. As we learned last week, the question of why they hate us can now be answered in just one word: Newsweek.

    “Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care,” said the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, as he eagerly made the magazine the scapegoat for lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan. Indeed, Mr. McClellan was so fixated on destroying Newsweek – and on mouthing his own phony P.C. pieties about the Koran – that by omission he whitewashed the rioters themselves, Islamic extremists who routinely misuse that holy book as a pretext for murder.

    That’s how absurdly over-the-top the assault on Newsweek has been. The administration has been so successful at bullying the news media in order to cover up its own fictions and failings in Iraq that it now believes it can get away with pinning some 17 deaths on an errant single sentence in a 10-sentence Periscope item that few noticed until days after its publication. Coming just as the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is “worth fighting” and only 42 percent think it’s going well, this smells like desperation. In its war on the press, this hubristic administration may finally have crossed a bridge too far.


    About the Newsweek matter Donald Rumsfeld had a moral to bequeath the land. “People need to be careful what they say,” he said, channeling Ari Fleischer, and added, “just as people need to be careful what they do.” How true. If one of his right-hand men, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, hadn’t been barnstorming American churches making internationally publicized pronouncements that his own Christian God is “a real god” and Islam’s god is “an idol,” maybe anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, at record highs even before the Newsweek incident, would have been a shade less lethal. If higher-ups had been called to account for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, maybe Newsweek might have had as little traction in the Arab world as The Onion.


    As for the supposed antimilitary agenda of the so-called mainstream media, the right should look first at itself. In its eagerness to parrot the administration line, it’s as ready to sell out the military as any clichéd leftist. For starters, it thought nothing of dismissing the judgment of Gen. Carl Eichenberry, our top commander in Afghanistan, who, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the riots were “not at all tied to the article in the magazine.”

    The right’s rage at Newsweek is all too reminiscent of the contempt it heaped on Specialist Thomas Wilson, the soldier who dared to ask Mr. Rumsfeld at a town hall meeting in Kuwait in December about the shortage of armored vehicles. Mr. Wilson was guilty of “near-insubordination,” said Rush Limbaugh; the embedded reporter who helped him frame his question was reviled by bloggers as a traitor. Yet Mr. Wilson’s question was legitimate, and Mr. Rumsfeld’s answer (that the shortage was only “a matter of production and capability”) was a lie. As USA Today reported in March, the Pentagon has known for nearly two years that it didn’t have enough armored Humvees but let the problem fester until that insubordinate questioner gave the defense secretary no choice but to act.


    Just since the election, we’ve witnessed the unmasking of Armstrong Williams and Jeff Gannon. We’ve learned – thanks to Newsweek’s parent publication, The Washington Post – that the Pentagon went so far as to deliberately hide the circumstances of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death from his own family for weeks, lest the truth mar the P.R. advantages to be reaped from his memorial service. Even as Scott McClellan instructs Newsweek on just what stories it should write to atone for its sins, a professional propagandist sits as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: Kenneth Tomlinson, who also runs the board supervising Voice of America and other government-run media outlets. He’s been hard at work meddling in the journalism on NPR and PBS.

    This steady drip of subterfuge and news manipulation increasingly tells a more compelling story than the old news that Newsweek so egregiously botched.

  • Michael Sokolove profiles Sen. Rick Santorum in The Senator From a Place Called Faith.

    Santorum has never entirely shed his image as someone not quite fit for polite political company — he is the senator as hyperactive political pugilist, quick to engage in combat, slow to yield the floor, a little too eager to crush opponents. His instinct runs more toward total victory than to meeting somewhere in the middle. He has become important, a man for the political times, partly because he understands the Senate’s courtly veneer as just that — a fiction. He likes to fight from the extremes and disdains political moderation as wishy-washiness. He respects Democrats like Representative Henry Waxman of California; Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; and the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota — determined, passionate liberals. “They’re out there because they really believe this,” he said. “This is from their core. They’re true believers, God bless them. That’s what political discourse is all about. You bring in your moral code, or worldview, and I bring in mine.”


    In the summer of 1999, Santorum gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington titled “The Necessity of Truth.” It can be read as a distillation of his philosophy. He began by identifying what he considers an oddity of American culture, the “paradox,” he called it, “of a people that strive to be both religious and nonjudgmental.” He then moved on to his central theme — that Americans of faith feel constrained from expressing their views in “the public square,” where legislation and public policy are debated.

    “How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when his moral code is flouted?” he asked that day. “To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes? How is it possible that there exists so little space in the public square for expressions of faith and the standards that follow from belief in a transcendent God?”

    The United States has a higher percentage of churchgoers than any industrialized nation, a higher percentage of professed believers and a vast diversity of religious communities — all implying a widespread freedom to worship. But a key to understanding Santorum (and many other religious conservatives) is to recognize his sincere belief that he is playing defense. As a person of faith, he feels under attack, even victimized. He has stepped forward as a defender of the unborn, of religious Americans whose voices have been stifled and of cherished institutions that he considers not only under assault but also breakable.

    Marriage — defined as the union between one man and one woman — falls into the fragile category. Santorum supports a Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, which he equates to “messing with the basic family unit.” He says he does not believe that a right to privacy — the basis of court decisions legalizing abortion and overturning sodomy laws — can truly be found in the Constitution, and he says he fears that the same legal reasoning could be employed to legalize gay marriage. Returning in 2003 to the Heritage Foundation to speak on “The Necessity of Marriage,” he said: “The notion of a right to privacy is not about the common good, but about ‘me.’ Starting during the sexual revolution with contraception, it quickly evolved to abortion, and now it has found its way into today’s marriage debate.”

    To Santorum, who is married and the father of six children (as well as one who died shortly after birth), marriage is primarily about procreation and child rearing, and a union without at least that possibility need not be legally sanctioned. “Society’s interest in marriage is the future,” he told me. “It is the next generation. It is in providing a stable environment for the raising of children. That’s why we give marriage a special status, not because people like to hang out together and have fun.”

    Santorum rarely argues from a purely religious viewpoint. His line of reasoning usually goes like this: The founding fathers were men of faith. They believed in a nation based on traditional, religiously derived values, the same “moral absolutes” that he finds in his faith, and to diverge from them is to undermine the health of American society. The same reasoning, taken to its extreme, edges toward treating the Constitution as a kind of Christian document, but Santorum doesn’t go quite that far.

    When I asked him if he viewed gay marriage as a threat to his own marriage, he answered quickly. “Yes, absolutely,” he said. “It threatens my marriage. It threatens all marriages. It threatens the traditional values of this country.”


    In February, the presidential adviser and Republican strategist Karl Rove made a plea for Santorum to a couple of thousand people gathered for a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “If you’re in a state that doesn’t have a complicated election picture next year,” he said, and if “you might have a little time on your hands in 2006 come Election Day to do something good for the country, my recommendation is to make your reservation right now for a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn someplace in Pennsylvania to be helping this good guy get re-elected. Because he is going to be a target.”

    Republicans are desperate to save Santorum; Democrats are so burning to bring him down that party leaders quickly rallied around the socially conservative Bob Casey Jr. as his opponent. When their preference became known, another strong candidate, Barbara Hafer — a onetime state treasurer and pro-choice former Republican who had recently become a Democrat — stepped aside.

    The Casey name is something like a brand in Pennsylvania, so much so that politically unknown Caseys, unrelated to the “real” Caseys, have won office. So Santorum is in the unusual position of being a two-term U.S. senator who enjoys no name-recognition advantage over his opponent. A statewide poll taken in April showed Casey with a 14-point lead and also indicated that two factors — Santorum’s positions on Bush’s Social Security proposal and his prominence in the Terri Schiavo case — had driven his numbers down. (Santorum’s races tend to turn nasty quickly, in no small part because of the vitriol he inspires in opponents. Casey’s campaign manager recently blasted him for being “the only member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo’s hospice.”)

    A poll taken more than a year and a half before an election may not be particularly meaningful except to confirm what was already known: Santorum will have no easy time staying in office.

    I asked Santorum what he thought the race would be about. “In terms of issues, it’s too early to say,” he answered. “But I’m the incumbent, so basically, it’ll be about me.”

    We were in the car in Allentown, and one of his children had called him on his cellphone, looking for guidance on how to prepare the garden. “Just clear weeds, honey,” he said, “and when I get home we’ll talk about what we’re going to plant.”

    When he hung up, he turned his attention back to his Senate race. “I’m O.K. with it being about me,” he continued. “I didn’t come to Washington just to come back here. That’s never been what I’m about. I’ve got other things I can do. As a U.S. senator, I’ve been given a gift of being able to make a difference in people’s lives, a trust. I’m O.K. with the people deciding how I’ve done with that trust.”

  • Eleanor Clift looks at the real agenda in the GOP’s fight to end the filibuster.

    Stripping Senate Democrats of their right to filibuster judicial nominees is a prelude to a broader assault on the judiciary known as “court stripping.” Alabama Republican Richard Shelby last year introduced The Constitution Restoration Act of 2004 to acknowledge God as the sovereign source of law and threaten judges with impeachment should they uphold separation of church and state. Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore appeared with Shelby at the press conference announcing the legislation. Moore is now touring the country with the granite block depicting the Ten Commandments that he was ordered to remove from the state court house.

    Shelby reintroduced the bill in March of this year when the Terri Schiavo case was in the headlines. His press secretary says the two events were unrelated, yet if anything like Shelby imagines comes to pass, it would turn our constitutional democracy into a theocracy. The legislation says no court has jurisdiction to rule on issues surrounding God, the flag, separation of church and state and establishment of religion. The wording is broad enough to remove from civil law all matters of personal status, like whom you can marry and issues related to child custody and child support. “We’re lulled into thinking it’s too ridiculous to pass,” says Judith Lichtman with the National Partnership for Women & Families. “But it’s the genius of the right to make what is really radical accepted in the mainstream.”


    What Shelby and his backers are really after is gay marriage. If the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004 were law, the Massachusetts Supreme Court could not have ruled that two people of the same sex can marry. “They’re doing in a sense what Iraq is trying to do,” says Lichtman, “make religious law supreme and not reviewable by any court, least of all the Supreme Court.” She adds that while Jews have to speak up, along with Muslims and Buddhists, this is a fight within Christianity because it refers to an orthodoxy and a very new and strict construction of the Bible that trumps everything else, including civil law.


    This is dangerous business when an inflamed minority, the religious right, demands the ouster of any judge that doesn’t rule their way. The framers intended the judiciary to serve as a check on power, which is why judges are appointed for life, and once they ascend they’re supposed to be protected from the political process. Republicans say all they want is a simple up-and-down vote, but the Founding Fathers were worried about the abuse of power. Sixty votes forces a consensus. The Electoral College is a brake on popular will. This is a constitutional democracy, not winner takes all. Otherwise, George W. Bush wouldn’t have prevailed in 2000.

    Well, there’s enough scary reading to make you choke on your Wheaties on this nice quiet Sunday morning. We have two senators — Santorum and Shelby — who are basically bent on turning this country into a theocracy. Read the text of the Constitution Restoration Act:

    `Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an element of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official personal capacity), by reason of that element’s or officer’s acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.’.

    Then examine Sen. Santorum’s view that there is no guarantee of privacy in the Constitution itself. I’m not a lawyer, but I think the text of the Fourth Amendment —

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    –sounds to me like there’s an implied right of privacy, and the Ninth Amendment–

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    –seems to cover whatever the Fourth left out. But that apparently isn’t the case, at least in the eyes of Sen. Santorum, so he feels free that the government has the right to tell you exactly what privacy is. Once again a rising star in the Party of Less Government and More Personal Responsibility scores a perfect 10 on the Irony meter. As for Sen. Shelby and his assault on the Establisment Clause of the First Amendment–

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    –it makes you wonder if Oliver Cromwell has come back to life and settled in Birmingham.

    It’s all too easy to dismiss these people as whackjobs and tools of the wild-eyed nutsery. But you cannot read these articles without a sense of foreboding that there is a larger issue here and it all seems pointed at not just a single target or a small set of hot-button issues like abortion or gay marriage. Those are the excuses — the things that people can point to and say that our culture is sliding into Hell — while going after entire segments of our population. This isn’t about gay people seeking basic civil rights or about women having control over their bodies. It is about making them the sacrifices on the altar of moral purity to placate a supernatural being that is the main character in a collection of fables and reshape a messy democracy into a neat and tidy civilization where everyone knows exactly what they can and can’t do. This gives us a safe, comfortable and mindless existence, and who wouldn’t want that? In our eager rush to do so, we’re about to flush the Constitution down the toilet. The problem is that when we do it, there will be no rioting in our streets.