July 30, 2007


Sam Smith

The mythological miasma in which America finds itself and its inability to face reality or use common sense has many contributing sources including advertising and propaganda, the entertainment industry, endless military fantasies and an intelligentsia that can't distinguish between theory and fact.

But America's denial of the real is also being fueled by a media driven conviction that faith is a superior route to the truth than evidence, history or experience, 

As a result, the religions that are soaring in the public's mind are those that extend faith's turf beyond matters unknown or unprovable in the secular world and that treat spiritual conviction as a more than adequate substitute for reason, empirical analysis or scientific conclusions.

The great irony is that this is happening even as we loudly and repeatedly declare our major enemies to be those who have taken  precisely the same approach towards their own Muslim faith.

This is not to say there is no place for faith, but only to accept the dictionary definition that faith is a "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." Such a belief can fairly exist only when proof and evidence are unattainable and not when they are plainly visible on each night's evening news.

As a one-time anthropology major, I am far less hostile to faith - including religious faith - than many of my cynical ilk. Once, while visiting Italy, I found myself staying in a room with a picture of the Pope over the bed. My reaction was a multicultural truce; I simply  removed the picture after the house cleaner had left and put it back before she returned the next morning. I have also left the mezuzah on the front doorjam of the house we bought some years ago just to be on the safe side.

I know of no culture and no time that has done without faith. Journalists, for example, put almost religious faith in what they call objectivity. And even Einstein had a horseshoe over his door, explaining to a friend that while he did not believe in it, "they tell me it works."

The fair use of faith fills the gaps of human knowledge with beliefs that help people keep going without harming others. These beliefs can create wonderful children or they can deny them needed medicines. They can create honorable, caring people and communities or they can lead to wars and cruel prejudice.

Without some form of faith, many humans easily become depressed, anti-social, confused, immoral or suicidal. Faith may be no more than a natural form of Prozac, but if it works for the individual and doesn't hurt the believer or others, it's a respectable way to get through life. 

It is also true - and overwhelmingly ignored by the media and politicians - that religious belief is only one variety of faith. The poker player can have a completely secular form of faith as can the basketball player or hard working individuals whose faith is based on the effort they have expended. People can be guided by deep faith in their family, community, nation, moral standards, teachings and philosophies, art or music. And one of the most common forms of faith among politicians is in themselves rather than in the God of whom they speak so often. Restricting faith to its religious manifestations thus is one more way the media has trivialized and distorted the topic.

The media has also widely accepted the notion that there are identifiable "people of faith" - again meaning only explicitly expressed religious faith. These people supposedly stand taller because of their belief in a certain God. And the media accepts without argument that having faith is more important than witnessing it, an assumption that gives the fundamentalist religions a leg up, say, on activist Jews and Presbyterians or Catholic practitioners of liberation theology. In short, the media has been suckered into a trite and provincial definition of faith useful primarily to slimy politicians and evangelical hustlers.

A recent example of this toadying to certain religious assumptions was a recent Anderson Cooper show that included the following:

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sometime between the last campaign and this one, the Democratic Party woke up and saw the light. . .

MARA VANDERSLICE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It was almost like it was a joke, that you couldn't be a Christian and be a Democrat.

KAYE: These days, she's on the vanguard of Democrats' expanding effort to connect with people of faith. The reason? A big God gap between the parties.

A big God gap between Democrats and Republicans? It's hard to have more biased media coverage than that.

In fact, the NY Times recently published a statistical analysis of how the God gap has actually changed in the Congress over the past forty years. Here is the real politics of religion as it has played out in a body supposedly equal to the White House in power. In Congress, between 1964 and 2006:

Roman Catholics have increased 46
Jews have increased 26
Baptists have increased 12
All others have increased 12
Mormons have increased 5
Lutherans have stayed the same
United Church of Christ have declined 17
Episcopalians have declined 31
Presbyterians have declined 32
Methodists have declined 33

When was the last time you heard any media discussion of the increase in Catholic or Jewish power in Congress? Or that the off-beat and non-believers are doing as well as the Baptists?

Now take a look at the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices are Catholic, two are Jewish and the other two are Protestant. There are no Southern Baptists on the court. The Catholics on the court represent 45% of all Catholics ever to sit there, again suggesting that the topic deserves at least as much attention from the press as does pimping for Protestant preachers of the evangelical right.

The media's faith fraud adds to a fantasy that the only things that matter politically are those that don't matter in real life. Loudly speculate on what's going to happen after you die and you will get far better coverage than knowing what to do in Iraq or with the economy next month.

As for the politicians, whether it is the sanctimonious pomposity of Obama or the sleazy hypocrisy of Clinton, it is hard to see why any sane religious person would fall for such cynical professions of belief. In fact those raised deeply in a faith usually don't talk about it all that much. John Edwards, for example, has been far more restrained on the topic than the two front-runners.

Asked about gay marriage, Edwards mentioned his personal reservations but added that it was "absolutely wrong as president to use faith to deny anyone their rights and I will not do that when I'm president." Alone among the major candidates, Edwards seems to understand the line between faith and reality. Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are perfectly willing to trade the latter for the former whenever it looks like it'll add a few more votes.

It is the line between religious faith and reason - not the line between religious faith and non-belief - that ultimately matters. The question is not one's faith but whether it is used to override, ignore or pervert the facts and whether it is used to help or hurt others. We have had more than enough pain and suffering due to the abusive application of faith substituting for reason and decency. What this country needs now is not more people of faith but more people of reality and common sense. Especially among those running for office

July 27, 2007


Sam Smith
DENTISTS, rather than being eulogized, usually get treated more like Groucho Marx's friend whom he introduced at party by saying, "This is Dr. Johnson. Don't get up; he's only a dentist."
But then most people don't have a dentist like George Baxter.
I first went to Dr. Baxter in 1960 when the Coast Guard told me that I needed some work done before they would let me into Officer Candidate School. As it turned out, my Achilles' heel was in my mouth and I would spend more time over the next 47 years at Dr. Baxter's than at all other medical offices combined.
My first hint that I had picked the right dentist was when I went to the Naval medical center in Newport, RI, for a checkup. The dentist looked inside my jaw and said, "Do you mind if I bring the Captain in to look at your teeth? This is really good work."
I had had a few captains in my face before, but never staring directly into my mouth - a prospect that clearly pleased him as he praised the dentistry.
Over the years I would find myself shrugging off the prospects of yet another dental appointment by anticipating the enjoyment of what non-medical matters Dr. Baxter would address that day. These varied from jokes, to reminiscences of patients, to tales of medical school, to a pseudo diagnosis such as "Hmm. . . a non-pathological, non-invasive, idiosyncratic intrusion on the upper molar," i.e. a bit of food left over from lunch.
I would join in the conversations and the jokes that would often continue until an assistant walked into the room and behind my back held up a written note for Dr. Baxter to scan. Although I couldn't see the notes, I strongly suspected they said something such as, "Doctor, please remember you have some other patients" at which point Dr. Baxter would begin to sound like a radio announcer trying to wind up his show before the noon break.
Over the years, these other patients included a lady who once asked him when she had first come to his office. He looked up the record and told her. She was disconcerted, noting that she hadn't even ever been married that long, and then  never came back. Another patient was so aged that he only wanted a temporary crown as he expected to die shortly. For year after year he returned  every six months as his mortality failed to fulfill his expectations.
About fifteen years ago, another dentist joined the office and while not as garrulous or funny, certainly maintained the level of care and skill that Dr. Baxter had set. Which is not surprising since this dentist had plenty of opportunity to learn from the superb Dr. Baxter.
Dr. George Baxter recently sent his patients a note saying he was ending 50 years of dentistry. All but three of them included me as a patient and while this is the sad end of a happy chapter, it is not the end of the story.
You see, the other dentist in the officer is called Dr. Barbara to differentiate her from her father, Dr. George. And I am due for an appointment in the fall.

July 18, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - When I met my wife she was working as assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson was notable in two regards: good legislation and good stories. For example, he was once delivering a speech when he stopped a few paragraphs in, looked over his glasses at the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and frankly I don't agree with it." His wife Carrie Lee, whom he had met at an Army base in World War II and then were reunited on Okinawa in 1945, was more than his match. She is alleged to have once responded to Lyndon Johnson's request for a dance at a White House function by asking, "Do I have to?" On another occasion, as Nelson was giving a lengthy introduction to Adlai Stevenson at a dinner, Carrie Lee, at the far end of the head table, scribbled a note and passed to her husband via a line of barely contained honored guests. The note read: "Sit down, you shit. Adlai's the speaker."

I never met Nelson and his wife until they were in their 80s. One of my wife's college professors had asked to see them when he was in town so we invited them over for dinner. I was out getting something in my car when Nelson drove up to our house and deposited his wife before seeking a parking space. My first sight of Carrie Lee was a woman mounting our steps with a Schweppes tonic water bottle in her hand. And her first remarks to me were, "Everyone thinks a woman of my age only drinks wine, so I bring my own vodka."

By the end of the evening the bottle was empty after a raucous dinner that included this story told by Senator Nelson:

A farmer had lost his rooster and bought another. He delivered the new rooster a lecture along the lines of, "Just remember you don't have to take care of all of the hens at one go. Learn to pace yourself. That's what did the other fellow in."

The next morning the farmer went out to find the rooster lying prone on the ground, his wings outstretched and not an ounce of movement. Overhead a vulture circled and low and menacingly.

"See," said the farmer. "What did I tell you? But you wouldn't listen, would you?"

The rooster lay still but in a small voice replied, "Shh. If you want to screw a vulture you have to play their game."

Now there was a man who understood Washington.

July 17, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - There were four of us standing together at the party and the subject was Sy Hersh's new book on Kennedy. The man who had once been one of Hersh's colleagues at the New York Times called the book unbelievable; his wife and the other woman agreed. I asked him what parts of the book he found unbelievable and he told me the part about Marilyn Monroe that had turned out to be a forgery. That part isn't in the book, I said. Besides, did you ever get near the end of a story and find that something you thought was true wasn't? He said he had.

The woman to my left picked up for him, citing the part about buying the 1960 election. That's old stuff, she said with disdain. Besides why would Kennedy have to go to the mob when he could just go to Mayor Daley? I tried briefly to determine why stealing an election with the help of Mayor Daley was more honorable than doing it with the Mafia, but gained little distance. So I asked the question that had been on my mind from the start: how many of us have actually read the book?

None of us had.

It was another typical evening in the Washington marketplace of ideas.

July 15, 2007



Sam Smith

The 2008 presidential campaign has already revealed the slim odds that anyone elected to the White House from either party will help bring America back to life, back to its constitution, back to its ideals, back to sanity and back to reasons for enthusiasm and pride in being an American.

The job thus remains a largely non-electoral one, much as it was the first time around and during periodic revivals such as the abolition movement, populist era and the 1960s. The mainstream politics were there, but mainly a reflection of powerful movements that had reached into American hearts and communities and developed a constituency for the politics that followed. As John Adams put it, the American Revolution "was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."

It is such a communal revolution that is so strikingly missing from the hearts of America today. It is certainly not to be found in Democratic Party front groups like Move On and the Center for American Progress, but it is also missing from the anti-war effort, the healthcare issue and attempts to control assaults on our civil liberties. There are, to be sure, groups dealing with each of these issues but they function often more like traditional Washington lobbies than as forces of broad inspiration. And they lack either the will or the skill to merge their cause with different but compatible efforts, leaving a battlefield that looks more like a series of information booths at a demonstration rather than a united force for good.

Part of the problem is organizational, part a lack of common symbols, part stems from the absence of a common and clear agenda, and part reflects a vacuum of values that are easily identified and shared.

There also needs to be a far greater consciousness of the degree to which traditional American constitutional standards, political agendas and social values have been destroyed. We need to admit that the First American Republic is over and as we flail about in whatever one wishes to call the interregnum - I sometimes call it an adhocracy - our true task is to design, test and produce America 2.0. What follows are some suggestions for the Beta version of a new America.


The liberal and progressive effort is largely dominated by groups modeled on the classic Washington or state lobby, groups that purport to represent a particular interest but do so in a limited fashion, notably excluding effective mass participation.

These groups compete with one another for funding, achieve that funding through niche rather than holistic programs and have little vested interest in joining diverse coalitions. For example, the development director of one such state group described to me the troubles he faced in fund raising because his organization had joined others in opposition to a tax proposal. Some funders clearly did not like this detour from the group's stated focus. You don't need too many experiences like that before you learn to mind your own business. Good for the bottom line; lousy for an effective movement.

There is also the problem that so much funding comes from centrist foundations that use their financial power to tame the groups they support. A covert trade of soul for dollars has increasingly been part of the American liberal story.

Further, the staffs of these groups are part of a professional subculture with its own career rules accompanied by rewards or penalties for observing or ignoring them. While this is no different than any profession, it clearly has an effect on how these groups go about their business, an effect that may be quite at odds with what the organization is supposed to be about.

Finally, unlike the liberal non-profits, corporate lobbying groups are not expected to manufacture pharmaceuticals, run TV stations or drill for oil. They only represent these activities in the political world. Liberal and progressive lobbyists, on the other hand, are expected to carry the whole load, and end up creating the illusion of making something when they are really only marketing it.

Just as our government often reduces the citizen to a mere customer of the state, so such political organizations typically reduce their participants' role to merely signing something or writing a check.

This is not to say that these organizations are wrong or useless. Especially given the complexities of getting legislation and budgets passed, something of this sort is essential. It is only to say that they should be a far less important part of something that is far greater.

Two ways to deal with this problem come to mind. One is an alternative political party. Of late, the most successful attempt has been the Green Party, but as one of those who helped it get going, I confess to serious sadness over its limitations and effectiveness. These failures include:

- An inability to merge politics with organizing and a grassroots movement along the lines of earlier American socialists and populists. The Greens are not unique with this problem. I have, from time to time, asked candidates who are admirable but unlikely to win what they plan to do when they lose. The question tends to shock or annoy, but it is essential to a successful strategy. For example, a campaign that may only attract 5-10 percent of the vote can easily raise notice for various issues that can expand after the election. It can help build strength in communities that might be hard to reach outside of a campaign. It can, in short, serve not just as a traditional campaign but as an alternative form of organizing and one that does not end with election day.

- An inability to make politics a part of the social culture of one's supporters. Television and other technological developments have badly damaged politics' former role as a integral element of community life. Some years back, I tried to address this once in a talk at a conference:

"I rise to interrupt your proceedings - logical, thoughtful, and well constructed though they are - to suggest something oddly subversive: that people only get involved in politics in large numbers when it becomes more than politics, when it is more than a logical, thoughtful and well constructed process, when it is more even than a ideology. They get involved when politics becomes a normal, convivial, exciting and satisfying part of their social existence."

The Greens are ideally situated to revive the non-political side of politics. They are local, sensitive to non-political values and concerns and start with humanistic bias towards their work. But traditional politics is so powerful that it influences how even the non-traditional view their efforts.

- The Greens have over-emphasized presidential politics at the cost of missing numerous local opportunities. While this obsession is understandable, it is not a particular smart way to spend your time and money when you're as small and weak as the Greens - even if it does allow you to bask in the nearly obscene hatred of Democrats for Greens having the gall to act as though they live in a constitutional democracy. After all, the madness of others does not necessarily confirm one's own course.

- The Greens have been unduly rigid in both their approach and their tone, thus making it easy for others to view them as self-righteous prigs. High on the list of good political traits is being nice to others, welcoming them to your cause, making them feel at home. I have suggested, unsuccessfully, that the Greens make it clear that they are not just a party but a home and a salon des refuse for all those trying to make a better world, especially those young who are uncomfortable with the archaic manifestations of liberalism.

- To loosen this rigidity - real or perceived - the Greens could deliberately welcome part-timers, half-wayers and other stragglers on the true path. When I was invited to my first Green meeting in 1993, my instant reaction was, "But I'm not good enough to be a Green." The host, John Rensenbrink, replied like a Tammany Hall pro, "That's all right Sam, there'll be a libertarian there, too." Later, I would describe myself as the chair of the Big Mac caucus of the Green Party because, even with my participation in the birthing, I didn't always feel completely at home.

The rigid image could be altered relatively easily. There could be various subgroups such as, say, the Two Thirds Greens (who still vote Democratic for president or senator but agree to support Greens further down the ticket) or the Backyard Greens (who spend their time tending to the substantial local potential for the party, leaving the presidential fracas to others).

If this seems to dilute the Green cause, consider this from the Socialist' own history:

"From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views."

If the Socialists could be that wishy-washy it would seem the Greens might loosen up a bit.

I mention these problems as indicative of what can happen when one pursues the third party route. There is nothing irreversible in any of this. At its best a third party in our grossly unfair electoral system can still be the place where the better of the dominant parties eventually go to steal some new ideas, as was true with the Populists, Socialists and Progressives. Certainly the Green Party is well positioned in this regard; on issues like the war and health care, the Greens are much more typically American than the Democrats.

But a truly broad movement would have to include not just Greens, but Democrats, independents and the politically alienated or apathetic. The Green Party would be an important part of America 2.0 but only a part.

If you step back from the issues involved and consider just organizing skill, a remarkable fact emerges. The groups most effective at organizing large groups of people in America these days are not political at all, but churches.

Even discounting for the carrot of promised salvation, a serious organizer can find much to admire and emulate in the way churches go about their business. This is not a new phenomenon. I once heard a public radio account of how a 1920s labor organizer arriving in Arkansas found only two groups that understood how to organize: black Baptists and the KKK. So he used them both in his efforts.

An Alinsky-trained organizer would understand this but the average liberal or Green would be shocked. What the union activist understood about politics is that it's not where you come from, but where you're willing to go that counts. And even the average church is kinder to sinners than your typical political purist these days.

What is the secret of the church approach to organizing, again leaving aside the not insignificant come-on of heaven?

To begin with, at their best, churches are congregations and not merely organizations. Our society has become so bureaucratized that we hardly recognize the difference, but there is a big one. An organization is a carefully constructed pyramid, a congregation is far less clearly defined. One is a bureaucratic system, the other a social one. One is an artificial construct; the other is a voluntary gathering, a swarming in modern terms, around common values and goals.

Finally, organizations pride themselves on adherence to a specific mission; congregations see their role as far more holistic including the spiritual, the political, the therapeutic and caring for those in need even if they are not a part of the group.

Part of the secret of mega-churches, for example, is that they serve as a substitute for both government welfare and normally socially disconnected charities.

But it's not just a skill of evangelicals. You can find it among Unitarians, at Quaker meeting or in a synagogue - the sense that the group represents not only common faith, but a shared community and an obligation to each other. It was also typical of the old political machines such as in the Chicago's 24th ward as run by Jacob Arvey. Said a contemporary: "Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there's already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble."

What if we were to use secular congregations as one basis for building America 2.0? What if we were to form these congregations just as many churches started: in somebody's living room, around a table or a fireplace? What if we stopped seeking so hard for a structural or ideological solution and developed instead thousands of small congregations of those sharing both national and local, political and personal concerns?

Another aspect of churches is that they have preachers. While churches do have bureaucracies, these tend to be less important than the typical modern corporate or government bureaucracy thanks to personal leadership.

Some may regard this as highly undemocratic, but the fact is that churches tend to be more stable politically than many political organizations. In choosing a minister, the congregation gives its common interests and values a face and not merely an organization or a mission statement. The democracy comes from whether you show up on Sunday, fall away or move on to another church.

When I think back over all the political organizations with which I have been involved, far and away the most impressive in its work, the most emotional in the attachment it attracted and the most moving in its memories was the civil rights movement.

I strongly suspect that a major reason for this was that the movement - consciously and unconsciously - used the church as a model.

This went beyond the large number of ministers involved in the cause or the regular use of churches as meeting places. It affected the language, the music and the rhythm of the movement. And it was a movement in which you recalled its leaders as easily as its organizations. The power lay in that special relationship between a congregation of common believers working with someone they trusted for as long as that trust lasted.

To be sure, liberalism has some of the ritualistic characteristics of a church, but it is more that of a closed sect or a cult than of a welcoming congregation and it lacks the communal network, hospitality and sense of mutual obligation. There are a few contemporary models of secular prachers - Ralph Nader and Cindy Sheehan come to mind - but they are rare just as the sort of spirit, symbolized by rows of people holding hands in common accord and common voice is also rare today.

At that early 1993 Green meeting, we ended standing in a circle and I found myself holding hands with the pony-tailed mayor of Cordova, Alaska feeling a hope I have seldom felt since.

It can happen again, these secular congregations led by prophetic voices, but you don't get them with a grant proposal or some new carefully contrived structure. You have to do it, believe in it, find others who agree, and settle on a place to make it happen.


I recently visited the Clearwater Festival with my family. Over 90 performers were there on the Hudson River bank - ranging from Blues and Funk to Cajun and Zydeco. And with the revival music was a clear message of reviving the earth.

I was prepared to be bored, like going to one more political antique show. Instead, I found myself in a place of magic, surrounded by happy, decent and lively people. I felt good about America as I watched a woman singing "Union Maid" and clogging between the verses - as I rediscovered the almost forgotten notion of activism and joy bound together.

You don't find it much in modern politics. There's a stiffness, an artificiality and the assignment of potential activists to a passive seat in the audience. A few elite performers instead of large numbers of unskilled voices. A message rather than conversation. Watching Live Earth on TV rather than wandering around the Clearwater Festival.

Symbols are more than marketing or PR. The symbols we use define not just a cause or its image but signal our relationship to it. Among the missing:

- Even with a broadly despised war, there is no simple icon like the 1960s peace symbol.

- There is no hand greeting like the "V" sign or a special hand clasp.

- There is no color associated with supporters of a new America.

- There is a stunning silence. The disappearance of easily recalled tunes in popular music has taken sound away from our collective lips, leaving a silence that "like a cancer grows."

- There is a lack of art of literature that clearly reflects the collapse of the First American Republic, or our present political purgatory - what Eric Budon of the Animals has called "the endarkenment."

We are in a terrible moment of our history yet we have left its iconization to the same forces that caused all the trouble in the first place. As we start to think about America 2.0, retrieving control of our symbols should be near the top of the list.


One has to go back to the Great Society to find a time when Democrats knew what they were doing and how to describe it. The Greens have an agenda, but it is complex and undifferentiated. Meanwhile, the GOP has happily gone about oversimplifying life to God and gays, abortion and Al Qaeda, and the left still can't figure out why it's losing.

Quick: describe the progressive agenda in a few sentences.

If we can't do it, how the hell is the media and the public meant to know?

The point here is not to define the list, but to argue the need for one. It might be both broad as:

- Changing our foreign policy so fewer people want to kill us for it

- Adding morality to our commercial affairs and restoring economic progress to all Americans, not just for those at the top

- Providing single payer healthcare

- Saving the planet from further ecological destruction

And it might be as specific as:

- Instant runoff voting

- Ending credit card usury

- Shifting public budgets from cars and planes to buses, bicycles and trains

I might not even agree with these lists tomorrow, but it only took 70 words and you already have a pretty good idea of where I'm coming from, which is more than you can say of the major Democratic presidential candidates.

How to devise such a list on a mass basis is an interesting problem worth discussion and consideration. During the last presidential campaign I suggested a major conference of progressive organizations to devise a short agenda but with so many groups looking so inwardly at their own roles and budgets, this may prove impossible.

Another way would be a common polling system on progressive web sites and blogs or surveys by standard polling organizations.

Whatever the system, a brief, clear and strong consensus is essential and long overdue.


Just as progressive goals are lost in the mush, the same could be said of values. In fact, there may be less consensus possible than one might imagine. How do you get the Manhattan liberal to worry about and respect the drought-stricken Montana farmer? How do you get well-off gays to concern themselves with the urban poor? How do you get women's groups to recognize the degree to which non-college educated young men are the ones really in the rear these days? How do you blend the liberal, the populist, the civil libertarian and the green?

One thing is for certain: we don't know because we haven't tried. One way to start is to commence talking about it, finding common ground, testing who we really are and what we have in common.

A few questions to start the discussion:

- Can urban progressives find common ground with non-urban Americans?

- Why have the values of populism and civil liberties become less important among liberal agenda?

- How do we form debates so the door is open to gather supporters and not chase them away?

- Why isn't community - including local control - more important to the progressive movement of the day?

- How do we foster the idea of reciprocal liberty - I can't be free unless you have your freedom - rather than having freedom defined by purists on either the left or the right?

Ten years ago in my book, The Great American Political Repair Manual, I outlined some values that I thought were central to what I called a cooperative commonwealth, such as:

- We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us.

- We reject the immoderate tone of current politics, its appeal to hate and fear, its scorn for democracy, its preference for conflict over resolution, its servility to money and to those who possess it, and its deep indifference to the problems of ordinary Americans.

- We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions.

- We should tread gently upon the earth and leave it in better condition than we found it.

- The physical and cultural variety of human beings is a gift and not a threat. We are glad that the world includes many who are different from ourselves by nature, principle, inclination or faith.

- We must protect the right of others to disagree with us so we shall be free to speak our own minds.

- Our national economic goal is the self-sufficiency, well-being and stability of our communities and those living in them.

- Ecological principles should determine economic policies and not vice versa.

- The first source of expertise is the wisdom of the people.

- Individuals possess fundamental rights that are inalienable and not contingent on responsibilities assigned by the state. These rights are to be restrained only by a due concern for the health, safety, and liberty of others and are not to be made subservient to the arbitrary and capricious dictates of the government.

- Citizens should participate as directly as possible in our democracy

- The media should inform citizens and provide a means by which citizens may address government rather than serving as a vehicle by which members of the government and elites tell citizens what to think.

- Power should be devolved to the lowest practical level.

-The Bill of Rights and other constitutional provisions have deep permanence and are not to be manipulated or abridged for political gain.

- Politics dependent on corporate financing and lobbyist influence is corrupt, anti-democratic and unacceptable.

- Simplicity, conservation and recycling should be central to our economy, our politics and our lives.

- Individual privacy is paramount and not to be subservient to the needs of the state.

- Individual rights are manifestly superior to any granted corporations.

- Our elected officials are servants and representatives, not rulers.

- We need more community more than we need more things.

- We are citizens and not merely taxpayers.

- We own our government and are not merely its consumers.

Change it, rewrite it, scrap it, but put something down that explains to us and others what it is we value.


One thing is certain: the major political parties, their lobbying groups and think tanks are not going to be of much help. These groups will subvert any new dream and drag it back to the establishment's agenda much as the Democratic Party and groups like Move On have done with health care or the Brookings Institution has done with smart growth.

And just concentrating on necessities - such as ending the Iraq War or stopping Bush's assaults on the Constitution - won't lead to a new America either, essential as these issues may be. We must learn to distinguish between survival and creation and give each its due. These days we seriously shortchange the latter.

Finally, we must remember that change does not require a license. It traditionally has come from the unanointed, the unprotected and the unexpected. We need to create thousands of secular congregations, charettes for a new America and communities of hope and invention - and then bring our discoveries to others so they can share.

In the end, the only solution to a failed America is a new America. And there's nobody who can do it but us.


July 11, 2007


SAM SMITH, 1999 - The October issue was late because your editor was tied up in a six-hour voir dire for a double-robbery case. In the end, I maintained my perfect record of having never sat through a full trial. As a Coast Guard officer I was bounced from two courts martial and I have been dismissed from three jury panels. In the one case in which I was seated, a White House protest case, the first two witnesses -- US Park Police officers -- identified the defense counsel as the perp. The trial was over in 20 minutes.

In the most recent case, the judge's impressive if tedious effort to obtain a fair jury resulted in a long series of bench conferences as citizens told of their connections to crime and law enforcement. For my part I mentioned my USCG background, three house burglaries, one office break-in, one stolen car, being detained at Washington National Airport as a suspected terrorist due to a defective computer-screening machine, and the fact that one of my brother's in-laws had been killed in a drug store robbery.

Then I explained to Judge Michael Rankin that, while I doubted it was relevant in this case, I had been advised that I should reveal my long public advocacy of the right of juries to judge both the law and the facts. I noted that this view had upset some judges. Judge Rankin said it didn't bother him although he had recently debated the subject with Paul Butler, a black lawyer-scholar who has promoted nullification as a form of civil rights protest. I told the judge that I didn't think Butler's arguments were effective because they were based on ethnicity rather than history, which offered a much stronger case. I then began a brief spiel the subject citing Learned Hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Jefferson. While previous US Attorneys had expressed hostility towards my views, this one merely asked whether there were any legal principles that I would uphold. I asked for an example and Judge Rankin said, well, you would support the presumption of innocence wouldn't you? I said, of course, and then -- brazenly rapping my hand on the judge's bench to punctuate the point -- said my concern was that the jury remain our last defense against tyranny, the final legislature deciding the law as it pertained to the case under consideration. To my amazement, Judge Rankin said, well, you'll get no argument from me. The judge and both attorneys agreed that the case under consideration did not raise such issues and that was the end of the matter. I was, of course, later dismissed on a peremptory challenge.

The incident reminded me of another pleasant surprise I recently stumbled upon in a DC courthouse. Twenty citizens, including myself, are suing the President, Senate, House, and federal control board for the lack of DC self-government. The day before our hearing before a special three-judge panel in US District Court (in the very courtroom of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica fame)someone called the US Marshals and warned that our group might be planning some disruption. Sure enough, when I entered the courthouse with co-plaintiff and black minister Graylan Hagler, there was an excess of surly cops lined up outside. Inside, a US Marshal approached and asked if he could help us. Rev. Hagler asked for directions to the cafeteria which the Marshal gave and then he looked at Hagler and said, "I've been to your church, Reverend. In fact, one of my men is on your board of trustees. Let's go and bless him." So the marshal and the reverend left me to find the cafeteria by myself and to recall again something that is easy for activists to forget: not all your friends are out of power.

July 10, 2007


Sam Smith

Although it may be because I don't really believe in him, but I can say with certainty that God has never stopped his majestic efforts to talk with me. Further, even among the more religious I know, I can't recall any describing an instance in which God actually conversed with them. These people have ranged from the merely decent to the near saintly. They have prayed to God, thought about God, kept God in their hearts, but, so far as I know, God has never left a message for them on their cell phone.

Which leads me to wonder why, of all people, God talks so regularly to the likes of George Bush and Senator David Vitter who recently said of his dealings with an escort service, "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there - with God and them."

Of course there is always the possibility that people like Bush and Vitter are lying or just deluded, but I would appreciate some theological help on this matter. If I am to be saved, I first need to know the politics of who's saving me and right now it doesn't look very hopeful.

July 09, 2007


Sam Smith

In 1986, I was asked to give a toast at the fifth anniversary celebration of the DC Community Humanities Council. Here is what I said:

Five years ago the DC Community Humanities Council was formed, charged with the diffusion of ideas, the encouragement of thought and the inspiration of rational discourse within this our nation's capital. This was a little like trying to sell Bibles in a brothel, and I think that any fair assessment of what has occurred around us since we began would indicate that we have failed miserably. The best efforts of the council and its sainted staff have failed to halt a national and local stampede towards what is perhaps the most anti-humanistic era of our lifetimes.

It is an era, to be sure, not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It's as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes, the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan.

It is an era when we propose to devise the most complex weapons system ever created, but when we go to explain it to people, our government feels compelled to use comic book stick figures on television. We have become the first society to know more about the external world than we do about ourselves. And now we even seem to be losing the ability to talk or write about the problem.

It is an era in which, like the fifties, the man in the gray flannel suit is in the ascendancy, but unlike the fifties, when he was viewed with the ambivalence that the market forces upon us, he or she is now a cultural role model, and, unbelievably, even considered hip, charismatic and sexy.

And it is an era in which we know how to promote, facilitate merge, network, manage, integrate, finalize and bottom line, but are losing the ability to make or to create. I have a nightmare that one day the country will awake and discover that there is nothing left to manage, finalize and facilitate. And there will be no one left to build anything.

So we have failed -- here in the jaws of the lion -- but I would argue that given the powers arrayed against the humanistic ideal, failure has been the only sane and honorable course. And the failure, one hopes, is only temporary. Long ago, John Locke warned of the constant decay of ideas, and how they must be "renewed by repeated exercises of the senses." If not, "the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen."

The print is fading, but, thanks in part to this band of happy humanistic warriors, it could have been a lot worse. It has engaged in repeated exercise of the senses with an integrity, decency, fairness, sensitivity and good humor rarely seen in this town anymore. In a city that is obsessed with style, it is one of the few real class acts. So a toast to the Council for all it has done and will do and to the humanistic spirit. May we live to see it once more.

July 06, 2007


Sam Smith

ONE OF THE FASCINATING THINGS ABOUT THE CLINTON YEARS was the consistent failure of women's groups to show the slightest interest in those who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment. Basically, they were dismissed as trailer trash.

One of them was Paula Jones whose lawsuit against Clinton was the proximate cause of the testimony in which Clinton lied. Jones was regarded as barely better than a stripper by the liberal elite and Clinton's lying has mythologized as only being about his sex with Monica Lewinsky when in fact it was about another woman getting a fair trial in a sex harassment suit.

Here, from Wikipedia, is a summary of what has been conveniently forgotten:

||||| Before the case reached trial, Judge Susan Webber Wright granted President Clinton's motion for summary judgment, ruling that Jones could not show that she had suffered any damages, even if her claim of sexual harassment were otherwise proven. Jones appealed the dismissal to a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where, at oral argument, two of the three judges on the panel appeared sympathetic to her arguments. On November 13, 1998, Clinton settled with Jones for $850,000, the entire amount of her claim, but without an apology, in exchange for her agreement to drop the appeal. All but $151,000 went to pay, what were by then, considerable legal expenses. Before the end of the entire litigation, her marriage broke apart.

In April 1999, Judge Wright found President Clinton in civil contempt of court for misleading testimony in the Jones case. She ordered Clinton to pay Jones $91,000 for the expenses incurred as the result of Clinton's evasive and misleading answers. Wright then referred Clinton's conduct to the Arkansas Bar for disciplinary action, and on January 19, 2001, the day before President Clinton left the White House, Clinton entered into an agreement with the Arkansas Bar and Independent Counsel Robert Ray under which Clinton consented to a five-year suspension of his law license.

With the [inducement] of further evidence in the case President Clinton was held in contempt of court by judge Susan Webber Wright. His license to practice law was suspended in Arkansas and later by the United States Supreme Court. He was also fined $90,000. His fine was paid for by a legal fund raised for his legal expenses. |||||

Now, with the Scooter Libby case, the Clinton mendacity has found its way back in the news. But once again the comparison is being dismissed because of what is viewed by liberals as the insignificance of lying about sex. The sexual harassment suit is rarely mentioned.

An exception was Slate's Tim Noah who wrote, "No fair-minded person can deny that the previous president committed perjury about Monica Lewinsky while serving in the Oval Office. The country knew it, and it let him get away with it ... Is it really fair to treat White House aides more harshly than ordinary citizens when presidents get off scot-free?"

A debatable argument to be sure, but what is stunning is the response from Salon's Alex Koppelman:

|||| Though it's become conventional wisdom that Clinton committed perjury when he lied under oath about Lewinsky during the Paula Jones lawsuit, that question is in fact far from having a definitive answer.

It's important to draw a distinction here: Lying under oath is not the same thing as perjury. The federal statute regarding perjury -- as well as many state statutes, but Clinton was testifying in a federal lawsuit, so that's the law that applies here -- requires that the lie be about something material to the case at hand. And the question of whether Clinton's lies were material to the case is by no means settled. Indeed, the judge in the case, Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright, ruled that the Lewinsky issue was "not essential to the core issues" of the Jones lawsuit and excluded all evidence about Lewinsky from the suit.

There is still an argument to be made that Clinton's lies were material to that case, and the conservative legal scholar Judge Richard Posner, who is on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has made it. But there are plenty of "fair-minded" people who disagree; another eminent legal scholar, Ronald Dworkin, wrote a lengthy takedown of Posner's arguments for the New York Review of Books, itself a well-respected publication. "Posner's own argument for the materiality of Clinton's deposition lies is very weak," Dworkin wrote. "... [T]he pertinent question is not whether Clinton's false statements 'might' have been material, as Wright said, but whether they were material beyond a reasonable doubt. ... So Posner's claim that Clinton was 'clearly' guilty of perjury in the Lewinsky deposition is unjustified." ||||

In other words, in the Clintonista mind, it not only is a question of what the meaning of the word "is" is, but what the word "perjury" is. While such arguments may have a place in the courtroom they have no place among the fair and moral. Honest, decent people don't have to flee to such obscure distinctions.

But forget about morality. Let's just consider the politics. The sort of liberal denial of the importance of simple honesty is one of the things that has caused the Democrats so many problems. They have been forced into endless esoteric, baroque and attorney-like defenses of the Clintons' behavior and now propose to lay the burden on us once again. As we have pointed out, it isn't going to go away. The GOP is just holding its fire until after the Democratic convention.

The liberal faith these days is that it's always someone else's fault. So they blame Al Gore's failure in 2000 on the Republicans and Ralph Nader. But there are some important clues in that election that wise Democrats should consider before going with another Clinton.

The exit polls revealed that far more important than GOP malfeasance or the Greens daring to exercise their constitutional right to run for office was the silent effect of the Clinton scandals on voters, including liberals and other Democrats.
According to these polls:

- 60% of voters disapproved of Clinton as a person

- 59% - including some who approved of him - disliked him

- 68% said he would go down in the history books for his scandals rather than for his leadership

- 44% thought the Clinton scandals were important or somewhat important. In contrast, only 28% thought Bush's drunk driving arrest was important or somewhat important.

And most strikingly, 15% of those who voted for Clinton in 1996 turned to Bush in 2000. That certainly wasn't Ralph Nader's fault.

The Democratic elite is overflowing with lawyers these days and it has helped turned the party from the voice of the people to the scratchy, picky whine of the legal profession. It may be enough to get Hillary Clinton the nomination but in the end a lot of people who go to the polls don't like lies whether they count as perjury or not.

July 02, 2007


Sam Smith

THE PROBLEM with Vice President Cheney's claim that he is not part of the executive branch is not that he's wrong - a strong argument could be made to the contrary - but that he didn't in any way act as though he believed it until it seemed a good way out of jam.

While it is true, as a practical matter, that the vice presidency has been subsumed into the executive branch, there is no constitutional justification for this. And the vice presidency isn't alone. Notice, for example, how the very constitutional position of cabinet officer has been diminished by the creation of the non-constitutional office of White House chief of staff.

Beginning with Eisenhower's Sherman Adams, this post - which required no congressional confirmation for reasons that have never been adequately explained - was interposed between the president and the constitutionally cabinet officers, making the latter ever more subservient to it. While the Constitution grants the Congress power to permit the President to appoint "inferior officers" without confirmation, one would be hard pressed to include the Chief of Staff in this class. After all, the joke at the time of Adams was "Wouldn't it be terrible if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became President?"

I can't recall the non-confirmation of increasingly powerful White House staff and the parallel decline in the power of constitutionally named officials ever being a topic in politics or the media. It is one of the great silent changes in our system of government.

Something similar has happened to the vice presidency. When Jack Garner was vice president under Roosevelt, he declared the job "not worth a bucket of warm piss." And his primary office, in the Capitol, was often staffed by his wife in a rocking chair. By the time Al Gore got the job, however, he had a larger staff than Roosevelt used to fight World War II

If you go to references published before the current Cheney flap you find things like this:
"The Vice President's only executive function in the Constitution is to become President in the event that the President dies or is incapacitated." - Wikibooks

"Nor is it clear, even assuming the court chooses to hear the Comptroller General's case, that the Vice President can assert executive privilege. The Constitution vests the Executive Power in the President. So long as the President remains healthy, the Vice President has no constitutionally assigned executive function. As far as the Constitution is concerned, the Vice President's role is legislative in nature: to preside over and break ties in the Senate." - Find Law

But you will also find this on the US Government site:

"Executive Office of the President
* The President
* The Vice President
* The White House Home Page
* Offices within the Executive Office of the President
* The President's Cabinet"

In other words, in the executive branch's view, somewhere along the line the constitutional role of the Vice President was abandoned without constitutional amendment and the Veep was added to the president's staff. Does this mean that he should be confirmed by the Senate like a cabinet official or just treated like another immune political hack like the Chief of Staff?

What we have here is a perfect example of words acting as a substitute for law. As Edgar Allen Poe once noted, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip. . . I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

To further complicate matters, a video has tuned up in which Cheney explains his office by saying that "It's really a function of the last 50 years or so that the vice president's become an important part of the executive branch." In the end, the only thing that seems to matter is whether Cheney prefers at any given moment to be a turnip or a leg of mutton.