January 28, 2007


Sam Smith
The secret of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is that nobody knows who they are. They are vases on the table of politics waiting to be filled by whatever flowers arrive at the door. Jody Kantor, in the NY Times, nicely captures this in a piece on Obama:
"Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind ­ and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. . . Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, 'He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts'. . .
"People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama's words. . . Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. . . In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice."
This is not a new phenomenon in presidential politics. It was introduced by Bill Clinton, our first post-modern president, and his wife Hillary Clinton. In "Shadows of Hope," I discussed the arrival of post-modernism in politics as well as one of its inspirations, Vanna White, the wheel spinner on 'Wheel of Fortune." As Ted Koppel put it, "Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be."
SAM SMITH, SHADOWS OF HOPE, 1994 - The ability to communicate is one common to  all animals. What distinguishes human beings, it has been noted, is that they can also think. This is not a mere quibble, because people who use the verb 'communicate' a lot tend to mean something closer to a frog's 'baroomph' than an essay by Emerson. In response to their communications they seek not thought nor an articulated  response, but a feeling. We are supposed to feel like having a Michelob, feel like the president's bill will stimulate the economy, feel like all our questions about healthcare have been answered.
The rhetoric of contemporary "communications" is quite different from that of thought or argument. The former is more like a shuttle bus endlessly running around a terminal of ideas. The bus plays no favorites; it stops at every concept and every notion, it shares every concern and feels every pain, but when you have made the full trip you are right back where you started. Consider again Mrs. Clinton's comment on the death penalty:
"We go back and forth on the issues of due process and the disproportionate minorities facing the death penalty, and we have serious concerns in those areas. We also abhor the craze for the death penalty. But we believe it does have a role."
She paused dutifully at major objections to the death penalty yet finished her homily as though she had never been to them at all. In the end,  the president would propose fifty new capital crimes in his first year.
The approach became infectious. As the Clinton administration was attempting to come up with a logical reason for being in Somalia, an administration official told the New York Times that "we want to keep the pressure on [General] Aidid. We don't want to spend all day, every day chasing him. But if opportunity knocks, we want to be ready. At the same time, we want go get him to cooperate on the prisoner question and on a political settlement."
If you challenge the contemporary "communicator," you are likely to find the argument transformed from whatever you thought you were talking about to something quite different -- generally more abstract and grandiose. For example if you are opposed to the communicator's proposed policy on trade you may be accused of being against "change" or "fearful of new ideas" and so forth. Clinton is very good at this technique. In fact, the White House made it official policy. A memo was distributed to administration officials to guide them in marketing the president's first budget. The memo was titled: "HALLELUJAH! CHANGE IS COMING!" It read in part:
"While you will doubtless be pressed for details beyond these principles, there is nothing wrong with demurring for the moment on the technicalities and educate the American people and the media on the historic change we need."
Philip Lader, creator  and maitre d' of the New Year's "Renaissance" gatherings attended by the Clintons for many years, liked this sort of language as well. Said Lader on PBS:
"The gist of Renaissance has been to recognize the incredible transforming power of ideas and relationships. And I would hope that this administration might be characterized by the power of ideas. But also the power of relationships. Of recognizing the integrity of people dealing with each other."
There is an hyperbolic quality to this language that shatters one's normal sense of meaning. Simple competence is dubbed "a world-class operation," common efficiency is called "Total Quality Management," a conversation becomes "incredibly transforming,"  and a gathering of hyper-ambitious and single-minded professionals is called a "Renaissance" weekend.
Some of the language sounds significant while in fact being completely devoid of sense, such as "recognizing the integrity of people dealing with each other."  Some of it is Orwellian reversal of meaning such as the president's pronouncement after his first budget squeaked through: "The margin was close, but the mandate is clear."   This is the language not of the rationalists that the communicators claim to be, but straight from the car and beer ads. One might ask, for example, exactly what has really been transformed by the "power of ideas and relationships" at Renaissance other than the potential salaries, positions and influence of those participating.
The third virtue claimed by the Clintonites is the ability to arise above the petty disputes of normal life -- to become "post-ideological."  For example, the president, upon nominating Judge Ginsberg to the Supreme Court called her neither liberal nor conservative, adding that she "has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels." In one parenthetical aside, Clinton dismissed three hundred years of political philosophical debate.
Similarly, when Clinton made the very political decision to name conservative David Gergen to his staff, he announced that the appointment signaled that "we are rising above politics."
"We are," he insisted, "going beyond partisanship that damaged this country so badly in the last several years to search for new ideas, a new common ground, a new national unity."  And when Clinton's new chief of staff was announced, he was said to be "apolitical," a description used in praise.
Politics without politics. The appointee was someone who, in the words of the Washington Post, "is seen by most as a man without a personal or political agenda that would interfere with a successful management of the White House." 
By the time Clinton had been in office for eight months he appeared ready to dispense with opinion and thought entirely. "It is time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy and put our best efforts to work on a crime plan that will help all the American people," he declared in front of a phalanx of uniformed police officers -- presumably symbols of a new objectivity about crime.
Clinton, of course, was not alone. The Third Millennium, a slick Perotist organization of considerable ideological intent, calls itself "post-partisan." Perot himself played a similar game: the man without a personal agenda.
The media also likes to pretend that it is above political ideology or cultural prejudice. Journalists like Leonard Downie Jr. and Elizabeth Drew don't even vote and Downie, executive editor of the  Washington Post, once instructed his staff to "cleanse their professional minds of human emotions and opinions."
"What part of government are you interested in?" I asked a thirtysomething lawyer who was sending in his resume to the new Clinton administration. "I don't have any particular interest," he replied, "I would just like to be a special assistant to someone." It no longer surprised me; it had been ten years since I met Jeff Bingaman at a party. He was in the middle of a multi-million dollar campaign for US Senate; he showed me his brochure and spoke enthusiastically of his  effort. "What brings you to Washington?" I asked. He said, "I want to find out what the issues are." 
If you got the right grades at the right schools and understood the "process," it didn't matter all that much what the issues were or what you believed. Issues were merely raw material to be processed by good "decision-making."  As with Clinton, it was you -- not an idea or a faith  or  a policy --  that was  the solution.
This purported voiding of ideology is a major conceit of post-modernism -- that assault on every favored philosophical notion since the time of Voltaire. Post-modernism derides the concepts of universality, of history, of values, of truth, of reason, and of objectivity. It, like Clinton, rises above "party and philosophy" and like much of the administration's propaganda, above traditional meaning as well.
Like Clinton, the post-modernist is obsessed with symbolism. Giovanna Borradori calls post-modernism a "definitive farewell" to modern reason. And Pauline Marie Rosenau writes:
"Post-modernists recognize an infinite number of interpretations (meanings) of any text are possible because, for the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is undecipherable."
She adds:
"Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word . . . Language has no direct relationship to the real world; it is, rather, only symbolic."
Marshall Blonsky brings us closer to Clinton's post-modernist side in American Mythologies:
"High modernists believe in the ideology of style -- what is as unique as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body. By contrast, postmodernism. . . sees nothing unique about us. Postmodernism regards 'the  individual' as a sentimental attachment, a fiction to be enclosed within quotation marks. If you're postmodern, you scarcely believe in the 'right clothes' that take on your personality. You don't dress as who you are because, quite simply, you don't believe 'you' are. Therefore you are indifferent to consistency and continuity.
The consistent person is too rigid  for a post-modern world, which demands above all that we constantly adapt and that our personalities, statements and styles become a reflection for those around us rather than being innate.
Later, Blonsky writes, :
"Character and consistency were once the most highly regarded virtue to ascribe to either friend or foe. We all strove to be perceived as consistent and in character, no matter how many shattering experiences had changed our lives or how many persons inhabited our bodies. Today, for the first time in modern times, a split or multiple personality has ceased to be an eccentric malady and becomes indispensable as we approach the turn of the century."
Other presidents have engaged in periodic symbolic extravaganzas, but most  have relied on stock symbols such as the Rose Garden or the helicopter for everyday use. Clinton, on the other hand, understands that today all power resides in symbols and devotes a phenomenal amount of time and effort to their creation, care and manipulation. Thus the co-chair of his inauguration announced that people would be encouraged to join Clinton in a walk across Memorial Bridge a few days before his swearing-in. "It signifies the way that this president will act," Harry Thomason said. "There are always going to be crowds, and he's always going to be among them."
As a post-modernist, Clinton is in some interesting company. Such as Vanna White, of whom Ted Koppel remarks, "Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which  can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be."  Blonsky reports that Koppel sees himself as having a similar effect and says of Bush's dullness: "You would think that the voter would become frustrated... but on the contrary he has become acclimated to the notion that you just fill in the blank." And then Koppel warns: "It is the very level of passion generated by Jesse Jackson that carries a price." Clinton understands the warning and the value of the blank  the viewer can fill in at leisure."
Of course, in the postmodern society that Clinton proposes -- one that rises above the false teachings of ideology -- we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.
Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants.
Michael Berman describes one postmodernist writer's "radical skepticism both about what people can know and about what they can do [passing] abruptly into dogmatism and peremptory a priori decrees about what is and what is not possible." The result, Berman says, can be a "left-wing politics from the perspective of a rightwing metaphysics."

January 26, 2007


Sam Smith
As always happens, as soon as I say something nice about a political candidate, I find myself in trouble.
Part of the problem may be that I think about political candidates differently than a lot of people. Unlike many, I don�t see myself as part of some great collective of St. Peters at the gate deciding who should get into heaven and then, in a strange twist of metaphor, come back to earth and save us. Rather I think of politicians as one more tool in social and political change and the first question that jumps to my mind is: what can they do for us?
I expect them to fail, con, double-cross and desert, but before they betray us too much I would like to get a civil liberties bill or universal healthcare passed.
Before television turned candidates into pseudo saviors, people took this for granted about politics. It was almost a feudal arrangement: politicians paid for their corruption with public service. If you wanted perfection you went to church; you didn't go to the ward office.
Every once in a while a real reformer would come along but like one of those sunny days in February such campaigns were a reminder of the possible rather than of the probable.
Today politicians don't even have to tithe to their constituents. They just concoct a nice fairy tale for the campaign and upon election perform their services by, as Mayor Daley once said, dancing "with the one that brung you" - which ain't us.  We just applauded at the right time.
One alternative, of course, is to take the high road.  Ignore the Democrats and support a Green for president or stay with the Democrats but support Kucinich. There's nothing wrong with this except that the game is completely rigged against you and it may not be the best game to be playing anyway.
Some of us tried it with Nader in 2000.  It worked about as well as can be expected for third parties and, despite the whining of Democratic spoiled children,  did not cause Gore's loss -  as any fair statistical  analysis will show.
But it was also clear after that election that it wasn't a particularly useful route to continue.  History shows that third parties - given America's biased election system - only get one shot at having an effect in a presidential campaign. Further, given the Democrats' deep denial over their collapsing role in American politics, it meant there would be little but endless and pointless arguments in sight. I urged that Nader not run, arguing that standing in the middle of a freeway to make his point might not be the most productive use of his time. And I urged that Greens concentrate on local and state races which is where they continue to show their real strength and potential.
Lots of Greens disagreed with me and that's fine and I still admire them. It's just that I think of some of them more as monks and nuns of a righteous order than as political activists.
There is one other purpose to such moral campaigns besides the final tally and that is to use the effort as part of organizing efforts for some greater and longer purpose. Campaigns are good ways to get people active, but too often the campaign is both the beginning and the end of that activity.
With that in mind, for example, I invited some Greens over to my house to meet with Dennis Kucinich in 2004.  The meeting went well, but then I asked the wrong question. What, I inquired of Kucinich, do you plan to do when you lose? Kucinich clearly didn't like it but it is a the key question when you enter a campaign for mainly moral reasons. How do you make sure the cause continues after the election?
We should look at this Democratic primary season in the same way: not as an end in itself but as part of an organizing effort that has many miles to travel.
The minute you do this, iconic candidates without significant positive programs are easily eliminated. Obama is certainly a better fall-back position than Hillary Clinton but neither have anything to offer advocates of the  changes this country needs.
Three candidates do: Kucinich for peace, Gore for the environment and Edwards for economic fairness.
I don't think Kucinich can pull it off, I fear Gore has waited too late if, indeed, he intends to join the fray, which leaves us - at least for now - with Edwards.
No, I'm not thrilled about Edwards and, yes, I know that he, like every candidate running save Kucinich, has a lousy position on the occupation of Palestine, but he's saying things that haven't been heard in a campaign in a long time and he's already making a lot of the powers that be nervous - which is one reason why the big media is trying to pretend he's not in the race.
If Edwards stops being useful to the causes in which I believe, I'll ditch him.
And if you don't like the answer I came up then come up with your own.
Just do me one favor: don't ask which candidate best fits your paradigm of what a president should be and says the things that make you feel most comfortable, but rather which candidate stands the best chance of advancing the things in which you believe. That's a practical, not a moral, question.
Instead of being just the candidate's supporter, make the candidate your tool.

January 25, 2007


Sam Smith

ONE THING is clear about the 2008 Democratic primary: there will be little room for reality. The media story line is already being driven by a mythology that in more trivial times would only be annoying but, given America's collapse as a constitutional society and as a respected nation, merely adds to the extraordinary danger the country faces today.

It used to be that the length of the Democratic primary season at least allowed time for reflection and for recovery from illusions shattered in scattered states as presumed victors stumbled or fell. Now not even that is possible.

The NY Times reports that "as many as four big states ­ California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey - are likely to move up their 2008 presidential primaries to early next February, further upending an already unsettled nominating process and forcing candidates of both parties to rethink their campaign strategies, party officials said Wednesday."

The Times politely notes that "Democrats and Republicans said that the changes would be the latest step in the evolution of a presidential nominating system that increasingly seems resistant to the kind of dark-horse presidential bid that was possible back when small states like Iowa and New Hampshire enjoyed such influence over the nominating process."

What is really happening is that the primary system is being nationalized and compressed for the benefit of those with the most money and the best early standings in the media mythology.

Money at every level in American politics has already replaced the importance of the voter because money combined with media mythology makes voters do what the money wants them to. And in the last election cycle 48% of this money came from zip codes with a high proportion of households making over $100,000 a year.

Two items give a good feel for what's going on this year:

From ABC News: Movie moguls Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg want their Hollywood peers to join them at a Feb. 20 fundraiser the three are throwing for Obama. For $2,300 a person and $4600 a couple, they can meet the candidate at a reception at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Those who commit to raising $46,000 (10 couples/20 tickets) for the evening will be invited to a private dinner at Geffen's Malibu, Calif., home.

From the Jewish journal Forward: Democratic activists and operatives said Clinton will pull in large quantities of cash among Jewish donors not only because of what they described as her strong positions on Israel and domestic matters of interest to Jews, but also because of longtime ties with these activists dating back to her husband's administration. The haul is important: Strategists say that serious candidates will need to raise at least $50 million -- and probably more like $100 million -- by the end of the year. They say that money from Jewish donors constitutes about half the donations given to national Democratic candidates.

This is not democracy. This is a cattle auction.

But the money's not enough. The media, which is, after all, part of the money, has to provide a myth to replace any troubling intrusions by reality. Hence we have the lovely story of an iconic feminist running against an iconic black with, by our count, two-thirds of the candidate headlines this month going to Clinton and Obama.

The third placed candidate, John Edwards, has gotten just six percent of the headlines this month despite being ahead in Iowa and tying Clinton for second place in the last New Hampshire poll.

Edwards, once a darling of the Democratic Abandonship Council, has done the unforgivable. He has strayed from the flock and is playing his own game. It matters not that this game is the most realistically Democratic one of any major candidate in the past few decades or that his opponents often seem to be trying to prove how conservative they can be. For them it's not a matter of being the best Democrat; it's a matter pleasing the media and the money.

So you won't hear much about Hillary Clinton once being a Goldwater Republican or that Barack Obama offers little to write about, let alone justify electing him to the White House. To a media that otherwise produces soap operas and American Idol, Clinton and Obama are ideally simple to present in their mythcasts.

And the mythology runs deep. For example, the Washington Post reports that black Democrats favor Clinton over Obama by a three to one majority. Why? Because Bill Clinton, the best hustler since Elmer Gantry, managed to get blacks to take the faux Baptist bait, favoring inflection in the pulpit over improvements in the community. Even Toni Morrison fell for the scam and few seemed to notice that black incomes and net worth were continuing to decline, that Clinton's so-called welfare reforms favored whites far more than blacks, and that his aggressive pursuit of the drug war made young urban black men worse victims than their fathers fighting in Vietnam.

I once was asked by a reporter about to interview Clinton on the radio whether I had any good questions. I suggested asking him, "Why do you like blacks so much more when they're in a church than when they're on the street?" He didn't take my suggestion, but twice during the Clinton years cab drivers told me how great the economy was. "How many jobs are you working?" I asked each and it was a revelation. They had never thought of their personal disconnect between myth and reality.

That's a big job of the mainstream media: to keep us from discovering that disconnect.

And that's why they don't want to give John Edwards too many headlines. He's no longer playing their game.

Sure, Edwards partied with the Bilderberg mob, he's taken part in the current anti-Iran hysteria, he supports the death penalty, and he's won some court cases based on questionable medical science.

On the other hand it's hard to think of anyone since as far back as Fred Harris who has been willing to run for president sounding so much like a real Democrat, which is to say one centered on making life better for the most number of Americans.

And I would rather deal with Edwards' straight-forward error on the death penalty than with Hillary Clinton's attempt to make all sides think she agreed with them.

I may be unduly optimistic, but Edwards seems an unusual politician in another way. He seems to have learned something along the way. That doesn't happen often in politics.

But then Edwards lost a son in a car accident and his wife had breast cancer. It's hard to retain the sort of hubris one finds in a Clinton or a Kerry when life intrudes like that.

Now life has intruded again. From a darling of the DLC and a Bilderberg prospect he's become an outsider like us. He may be a trial lawyer but he's chosen to be our trial lawyer.

It's not perfect by a damn shot. For example, no major Democratic candidate - including Edwards - has addressed the collapse of American constitutional government and none has rejected Bush's education program.

And it's also possible that Obama might turn out to be something other than a somewhat sanctimonious pop star trying to make us feel good about him. Certainly he's a vast improvement over the most corrupt and dishonest Democrat to seek the presidency since her husband.

But at the moment, whatever his faults and given the realities of America's sick politics, Edwards is the best we've got, the best chance to hold the line against the money and the myths, against the corrupters and the corroders.

And we don't have a hell of a lot of time. Both the money and the media want this settled soon and weeks to them would be better than months.

The SUV liberals will stick with Clinton and Obama but, as Howard Dean showed the last time round, there's still a little room for an unanticipated rebellion, a demand for Democrats to be Democrats, for decency to go before power, and for the myth makers and the money shakers to be taught the lesson that reality still matters.

January 23, 2007

What I learned as a part Jew

Sam Smith

I grew up part Jewish. It was hard not to if you lived in a New Deal family where your father was involved in things like starting Americans for Democratic Action. My own introduction to politics came as a pre-teen stuffing envelopes for the local ADA director Leon Shull as he helped organize the removal of Philadelphia's 69-year-old Republican machine. Shull was one of those who early convinced me that there were three branches of Judaism: your Orthodox, your Reform and your Liberal Democratic, with the last clearly the most powerful. I was certain that Jews were put on this earth to run labor unions and win elections for the good guys.

If you think I'm kidding, consider this: for many years we lived across the street from a prominent activist couple - she black, he Jewish. One day one of their sons came over and slumped at our kitchen table. "What's the matter?" asked my wife. "I had a terrible night," the boy explained. "I dreamt I was Jacob Javits." He had already learned to fear becoming a Jewish Republican.

Although I knew Jews went to synagogue, I wasn't all that impressed. After all, as my friend Peter Temin was going to Hebrew school on Saturdays, I got to go to the Henry Glass music store and take drum lessons, clearly the better deal. During the week we went to a Quaker school where perhaps a quarter of the students were Jewish and nobody thought it odd. The tradition continues. The joke about Washington's Sidwell Friends School is that it is a place where Episcopalians teach Jews how to act like Quakers.

Much later I would figure out what Quakerism and Judaism had in common: a blend of individualism, pragmatism, and responsibility, with a particular emphasis on the last. You didn't come into the world pre-ordained and your primary goal wasn't to leave it saved; what really mattered is what you did in the meantime.

For much of my life, what I have done and what I have thought have been deeply influenced by existential Judaism and its practitioners. I can't even begin to count the number of times I have come across Jews in the lonely corners of hope trying to do what others, through lack of interest or courage, would not.

But a number of things have happened since I was first introduced to Judaism. The direct ties to the often radical Jewish immigrant tradition began to fade. The offspring of the immigrants became wealthier and less involved. America of whatever ethnicity began paying less attention to others and more to itself.

As I put it once, "The great 20th century social movements [were] successful enough to create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to enter the Chevy Chase Club, and indifferent enough to ignore those left behind. The minority elites had joined the Yankee and the Southern aristocrat and the rest of God's frozen people to form the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia in our history. But as the best and brightest drove around town in their Range Rovers, who would speak for those who were still, in Bill Mauldin's phrase, fugitives from the law of averages? The work of witness remained."

A whole history began to disappear. A part of the story was told by journalist Paul S. Green in his memoir, From the Streets of Brooklyn to the War in Europe. He notes that by the dawn of the 20th century

"Jewish youth in Poland grew more and more impatient with the narrow focus of their lives. They were determined to take part in the opportunities opening up around them - exciting new developments in science, the arts, in social relationships. This brought them into conflict with their parents and grandparents. In seeking a different way of life, they began to do the unthinkable - to reject the strict age-old Orthodoxy of their ancestors. "

Out of this grew several new movements, one of which, Zionism, looked towards retrieving a Jewish nation. Others were socialist, ranging from hard-core Bolshevik to the Bund, which Green describes as

"An organization of free-thinking Jewish youth who whole-heartedly embraced Yiddish culture and a Yiddish life that completely rejected traditional religion. The Bundists believed that only a socialist government - evolutionary rather than revolutionary - could hope to bring together all peoples of whatever origin and outlaw racial and religious conflict, with all men becoming brothers, thereby bringing an end to anti-Semitism and pogroms."

And so we find, not too many years later, the New York City Jewish cigar-makers each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. And the leader of the New York cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, became the first president of the American Federation of Labor.

Green's own family joined the rebellion:

"In embracing the principles of free-thinking non-religious belief, my parents had made a profound break with the past. The generation gap with their own parents was unbelievably deep. They had been born and brought up in a world that brooked no deviation. . . They were turning their backs on the fearsome God of their forefathers who had ruled Jewish lives for thousands of years. . . They realized that maintaining their beliefs set them apart from the mainstream of Jewish life, but the fact that they were a small minority did not bother them. "

They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country's social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists, heavily Jewish.

It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.

Sadly, however, social and economic progress inevitably produced a dilution of passion for justice and change not just among Jews but within the entire post-liberal elite. And, in many ways, Israel became the icon that replaced the cause of social justice. This is not to say that the two are antithetical. That certainly wasn't the case when I was younger. But as Jewish rhetoric and politics became increasingly in the hands of powerful conservative interests, an iconic, unexamined Israel began to serve Jews much as an absurdly trivialized Jesus has been used by the powerful conservative Christian interests to serve their ends. And other things just got forgotten.

Just as it is important for Americans not to define their country's past by the tragic distortions of the past quarter century, it is important for Jews not to be misled by a powerful right wing's reduction of Judaism to the goals of a deeply misguided and militaristic nation.

The fact is both America and Israel have badly damaged themselves through grandiosity, arrogance and narcissism. Beyond that is a truth few want to admit: no culture, no ethnicity, no value system can exist in a vacuum any more. This is not the fault of terrorists or anti-Semites. It's the result of television and multinational corporations that have usurped the role of culture, values and ethnicities. Add to that Israel's demographic trends and you've got a problem that AIPAC and Abe Foxman can't help you with in the slightest.

The answer, to the extent there still is one for the human species, is to be found in honest, personal witness. You can't save Christianity with hypocrisy and you can't save Judaism with missiles. What might work, however, is to reach back into the past of one's own culture or ethnicity and find examples of actions and behaviors that produced positive change. Neither Christians nor Jews have always been as absurdly self-destructive as they are today. And before they offer any more dangerous directions for dealing with today's problems, they need to rediscover their own good paths.

It is along such paths - and not on battlefields - that faith is solidified, admiration is encouraged, and loyalty is attracted. And along the way you may even pick up some unorthodox stragglers like me.

January 21, 2007

The real divide on Hillary Clinton

Sam Smith

The major media likes to talk about Hillary Clinton being divisive. In fact she isn't anywhere near as divisive, say, as George Bush doggedly pursing a war even some of his advisers and many of his former allies would like to get out of. Besides, since you never know what she's going to say on any given issue on any given day it, it's hard to have a fierce argument about her positions. Even in her kickoff for the Democratic nomination the best she could come up with was:

"Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world. How to make us energy independent and free of foreign oil. How to end the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare. And let's definitely talk about how every American can have quality affordable health care."

Well, we actually have been talking about these things for some time; it's just hard to get Clinton into the conversation. This is a classic piece of Clinton rhetoric. To the casual listener she is supporting an end to the war, energy independence and universal healthcare. Far from it. She just wants us to talk about it. A neat semiotic slide, sort of like Barack Obama wanting us to come together. . . so he doesn't have to choose between us.

And it's not new. In the early 90s Clinton offered these views on the death penalty: "We go back and forth on the issues of due process and the disproportionate minorities facing the death penalty, and we have serious concerns in those areas. We also abhor the craze for the death penalty. But we believe it does have a role."

There is, however, a real divide on Hillary Clinton. It is between reality and myth and it is a divide that has existed ever since her husband ran for the presidency. But, as with her husband, the media has done a superb job of protecting its audience from reality.

This mythology will flourish until after the Democratic convention. If HRC wins the nomination, the game will dramatically change. The Republicans would be delighted to have Clinton as the candidate and don't want to spoil their chances by beating up on her now.

It is hard to get Democrats to focus on this problem, but consider this: The Justice Department's and other investigatory files on the Clinton years are currently fully under the control the Bush administration and will be until Inauguration Day.

Bluntly put, the Democrats are walking into a huge trap.

Sadly, it is not that hard to see. In the months before her husband's nomination I reported on more than a score of institutions and individuals whose relationship with Bill Clinton raised serious questions. The major media nearly totally ignored this publicly available information. Yet, in the end, almost all these individuals and institutions became a major part of what became known as the Clinton scandals.

A similar fate awaits Hillary Clinton. Here are a few of the topics that can fairly be expected to be involved in what will become known as the Hillary Clinton scandals:

- The disappearance of the Rose law firm billing records, their later discovery in the White House and Hillary Clinton's inability to explain how they got there.

- Her huge and inexplicable winnings in a cattle futures operation

- Her role in the Whitewater development which was - although the media refuses to admit it - simply a land resort scam and one that was particularly aimed at seniors.

- Her role in the despicable White House travel office firings apparently aimed at favoring the travel firm that bankrolled Bill Clinton's campaign by delayed billing.

- Her role in the use of FBI files on political opponents and the open question of what information from these files she still possesses.

- A case, still in court, involving the alleged failure to report over a million dollars in campaign contributions. Clinton's Senate campaign has already been fined by the FEC for failing to accurately report $700,000 in contributions.

- Her relationship with such indisputably dubious persons such as Johnny Chung, John Huang, Ng Lap Seng, Mochtar Riady, the McDougalds, Craig Livingstone, Webster Hubbell and Jorge Cabrera.

- This report from CNN in 1999: "Deputy independent counsel Hickman Ewing testified at the Susan McDougal trial Thursday that he had written a 'rough draft indictment' of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton after he doubted her truthfulness in a deposition. Ewing, who questioned Mrs. Clinton in a deposition at the White House on April 22, 1995, said, 'I had questions about whether what she was saying were accurate. We had no records. She was in conflict with a number of interviews.'" . . . Ewing also testified that in a later deposition with both the president and first lady on July 22, 1995, he had questions about the truthfulness of both Clintons. McDougal's attorney Mark Geragos asked Ewing: 'Did you say the Clintons were liars?' 'I don't know if I used the 'L-word' but I expressed internally that I was concerned,' Ewing said."

There was a time when any sane campaign consultant and party leadership outside of Chicago would have told such a candidate to forget about running. But the assumption today is that all sins can be spun away.

It may seem that way, but it isn't true. The Democratic Party suffered in an unprecedented way at the national and state level because of Bill Clinton's misdoings. These scandals helped defeat two Democratic candidates for president and only in the last election were there signs of recovery.

The best favor the Democrats could do for themselves is to flush the Clinton name and its sorry memories down the toilet.

January 17, 2007


Sam Smith
Since the establishment media is trying to get us to elect a man as president on the basis of one speech he gave, I thought it might be useful to go back and look at Barack Obama's 2004 talk.
Before preceding further, it should be noted that electing anyone on the basis of a speech is a dangerous way of going about politics because, in the first place, you're not necessarily voting for the person who wrote it. I have long argued that speech writers ought to be listed on the ballot alongside their candidates and if any writer gets fired or leaves, then a special election needs to be called to select a new speechwriter-enhanced politician.
But that reform is a long way off so we'll just go along with the dominant principle that anyone who gives a good speech is entitled to be president.
Unfortunately, Obama's 2004 speech wasn't all that good. One can't read it without a sense that it wasn't the all too familiar cliches that appealed to the media and voters as much as the fact that they were being delivered by a black man. What Obama did was to say absolutely nothing that a centrist white voter would find offensive or nerve troubling. Not a hint of Jackson, Sharpton, Farrakhan or King.
The speech consisted of 2341 words (including the applause credits listed in the transcript). These broke down into the following:
15% - A description of Obama's family
 7% - Standard cliches about the U.S.
10% - Standard warm and fuzzy anecdotes
16% - Words in praise of the candidate, John Kerry
 8% - Cliches about hope
15% - We're all in this together, there's nothing much to argue about
The last theme can be summed up as why can't the pro-war, anti-abortion, evolution-despising Christian evangelical and the secular, pacifist, pro-gun control gay just be friends? It is a theme that seems to be central to Obama's current plans. Yet what does Obama have to offer to resolve such conflicts. Nothing but mushy, goo-good imprecations of the sort we used to hear from our fourth grade teacher. It's actually a lot harder than that.
There was one other theme in the speech - taking 8% of the words - that was startling to rediscover: Obama was subtlety but distinctly anti-government. A sample:
"Now, don't get me wrong, the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solves all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get a head. And they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you: They don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.
"Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.
"People don't expect -- people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice.
So now we're going waste months in the search for a candidate who will provide "just a slight change in priorities." And that, in his own words, is precisely what Obama promises.
What Obama was doing was sending a signal to the establishment that he wouldn't cause any trouble, that he was willing to join the extremist center, that most dangerous faction of American politics - the one that starts wars, destroys the environment, and celebrates economic equality all the time bragging about how moderate it is. Besides, as Harry Truman said, "Whenever a fellow tells me he is bipartisan, I know he is going to vote against me."

January 16, 2007


Sam Smith
There is already something quite scary about the 2008 election. Despite unprecedented crises of climate and constitution and the collapse of America's respected role in the world, the best the Democratic establishment has to offer are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two candidates full of logos, which is Madison Avenue for symbols, but devoid of logos, which is Greek for reason. 
What is scary about this is that this is no ordinary election coming up. This is an election that could determine whether America is condemned to further descend into totalitarianism and how easy it will be for our children to breathe, drink water and find food. To reduce the election to a matter of making whites feel smug about their willingness to vote for a black or a woman for president is to trivialize human and planetary survival. Besides, Margaret Thatcher was a woman and Idi Amin was a black. Equality means the bad is fairly distributed as well. 
If, as liberals have traditionally argued, justice requires looking past a person's ethnicity or gender to their essential being, there is no better time to practice this than in the 2008 election. And once you do, Clinton and Obama quickly fade as options, Clinton because her disreputable past, her chronic dishonesty and indifferent politics; and Obama for his lack of having done anything for us in the past and his failure so far to promise anything meaningful for us in the future.
As issues go, the question of the Iraq war is far less significant than it appears. We've lost and we're just arguing over the best way to get out. What is far more important are such issues as:
- Which candidates will best help America live peacefully and positively in a highly fractured world and which will merely aggravate the crises their predecessors permitted to fester?
- Which candidates will best reverse the America's growing anti-constitutional authoritarianism and which will merely increase the trend?
- Which candidates will take global warming seriously and which will just use it as another feel-good issue?
- Which candidate will work hardest to reverse the economic inequalities that have flourished in America over the past quarter century?
At present, there is no easy answer but one thing is certain: Clinton and Obama don't make it to the top of the list on any of these issues.

January 08, 2007

Retrieving the Democrats' reason for existence

Sam Smith

JOHN EDWARDS has done the Democrats an enormous favor. He has retrieved the party's reason for existence from the attic where it has been stowed lost and forgotten for some four decades.

What Edwards does with the discovery remains to be seen, but the mere removal from storage of the populist notion that Democrats are meant to serve the little guy has a significance that is hard to overrate.

To understand why, you have to look at some of the party's other lost and forgotten history, a history that directly challenges the myths of the moment.

For example, there have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs - from FDR's minimum wage and social security to LBJ's war on poverty and education legislation - were part of a populist agenda.

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the case:

- Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman. All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case, party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.

- Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three points better than Clinton in the latter's first election and only three points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled Clinton's best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.

- Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year was a partial recovery from this disaster.

In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have been campaigns heavily populist in nature.

American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle -- with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan "Not Now" and its goal of maintaining the temerity of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another - including young non-college educated whites - until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism's hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School of Journalism, found that "Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . .

A review of Doppelt and Shearer's work notes that "In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities."

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: "The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for." 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn't do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we're talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That's a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups - farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups - have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes - the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller - has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women's groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women's and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to driver its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism - despite its bad rap - has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people's personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.

But you won't break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don't do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn't think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let's look at two examples - neither a paragon of virtue - yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today's politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here's how Wikipedia describes him:

|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state's road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long's Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to "steal Long's thunder." |||

The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:

|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson's presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||

It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today's distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

- Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

- A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

- An end to usury in credit card lending.

- Pension protection

- A revival of high quality vocational training

- Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

- Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

It is possible that we have so fouled our own nest that nothing like LBJ or Huey Long will ever be possible again. And there is no guarantee that John Edwards, having discovered the populist treasure in the Democratic attic, will use it well. But there are so few real reasons to cheer about our politics these days, news that one candidate is seriously interested in programs that do the most good for the most people - an almost extinct goal in the Democratic Party - deserves a big cheer. And if he abuses this new found treasure, grab it from him and put it to better use .