Devil in the Details

Pulling Punches

Democrats who've been touting plans to nationalize the midterm elections next year with a good-government (“goo-goo,” in the parlance of political pros) campaign centered on Republican corruption seem to need a refresher course on how to play hardball.

In late June, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held the third in its series of hearings on the sprawling casino-lobbying scandal involving former Tom DeLay cronies Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Most observers have felt confident that this multifaceted saga, which implicates numerous Republican operatives and lawmakers beyond the House majority leader and is the subject of an ongoing federal criminal probe, would taint the Republicans and yield dividends for Democrats at the polls.

But Democrats seem to have expected committee Chair John McCain to do their partisan work for them. In fact, the Arizona “maverick,” eyeing an '08 Republican presidential run, has made it abundantly clear that his committee's investigation will not examine the actions of lawmakers. (He assured Republican colleagues of as much in a widely reported meeting in March.) Given that money from Abramoff's Indian clients has been connected not only to DeLay but also to Congressman Bob Ney and Senators Conrad Burns and David Vitter, such a self-imposed restriction “obviously makes for a pretty huge hole in the investigation,” according to Naomi Seligman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Sure enough, the June 22 hearing aired plenty of fun details about Abramoff and Scanlon's various shenanigans -- but mentioned nary a single lawmaker's name.

McCain's tightrope walk may be unsurprising, but one might have expected ranking member Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat, to push the discussion in a more partisan direction. Dorgan moved perfunctorily, however, through his questioning, neglecting the opportunity to press the president of a right-wing think tank when the subject arose of a 2000 trip to Scotland by DeLay and Abramoff, funded by tribal money funneled through it. Meanwhile, Democrats have raised no public objection to McCain's restrictions on the investigation's scope. “Dorgan's people just haven't pushed it,” said an official at an outside watchdog group.

Similar political punch pulling seems evident among House Democrats. CREW recently drafted ethics complaints against Ney (for his role in the Abramoff scandal) and Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (for his innovative housing arrangements, crafted with the apparent assistant of a defense contractor), but House rules require an actual member to bring a complaint before the Ethics Committee. So far, not a single Democrat has been willing to do so -- on orders from party leaders. The leaders want the Ethics Committee to initiate the investigation itself, but such restraint hardly characterized Newt Gingrich's aggressive, and successful, attack on the Democrats in the late '80s and early '90s.

Whether Democrats are crippled by a bizarre high-mindedness or a craven desire to protect some of their own ethically challenged members, the pointlessness of an ethics campaign that no one actually pushes should be obvious. When you're so discreet you can't even be a good goo-goo, maybe it's time to give up politics and hire yourself out as a butler.

-- Sam Rosenfeld

Nan in Action

Obsessing over a possible Supreme Court retirement comes naturally to Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based association of environmental, civil-rights, mental-health, and other progressive organizations that monitors judicial nominations. But late June was particularly frenzied. She says she couldn't sleep for nearly a week, wondering, is William Rehnquist really going to retire? “Everyone was anticipating [that he would],” she says, sitting at her desk in a comfortably cluttered office overlooking Dupont Circle on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “But I kept putting myself in his shoes and thinking, ‘I'm not going to step down.'” Still, the news that it was Sandra Day O'Connor and not Rehnquist (at least, not yet) threw her and the rest of the people in her office for a loop.

“We thought, ‘Holy shit,'” says Julie Bernstein, the 35-year-old communications director, looking over at Aron.

“What I thought?' says the somewhat more circumspect Aron. “Pivotal seat.”

“The first thing we said to the staff was, ‘You're in for the summer of your life,'” she adds. “‘And you're going to work the hardest you've ever worked.'”

“We said, ‘You can't go away on the Fourth of July,'” Bernstein adds.

Within an hour, staffers had sent out their first e-mail of the day. By 2 p.m., Aron was speaking at a press conference in the Mansfield Room in the Capitol. Elegant and unruffled in heels and a navy-blue skirt despite the 93-degree heat outside -- and the fact that “the most closely held secret in Washington” had just thrown her plans off-kilter -- she was flanked by Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way; Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center; David Bookbinder, a Sierra Club senior attorney; and other leaders of progressive organizations.

“We are urging the White House, President Bush, and his advisers to engage in consultation with the Democrats,” Aron told a room full of reporters. “None of us up here is spoiling for a fight.”

Not yet, anyway. But it's a safe bet that Aron will lead the charge to ensure that the new Supreme Court justice is “open-minded,” as she puts it. And, clearly, she relishes the prospect. “It's our opportunity to talk about the issue we love: the Court.”

-- Tara McKelvey

Gaza-cons

For years, Washington's neoconservative establishment has uniformly cheered Ariel Sharon for his aggressive promotion of Israel's occupation policy. But as the Israeli prime minister's vaunted Gaza disengagement revs up this August, the familiar chorus of hosannas has descended into cacophony.

Hard-liners are torn between loyalty to the prime minister they've lauded for decades and sympathy for Israel's ultras, the settlers, who feel betrayed by Sharon's Gaza pullout plan. The American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin called the move “irresponsible” and warned that Israelis will be “sacrificed upon the altar of [Sharon's] legacy.” The Zionist Organization of America says withdrawal will “creat[e] a terrorist state in Gaza.”

A February memo from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) underscores the tensions that Sharon's turn has created within the Israel lobby. While praising the withdrawal as a testament to Israel's generosity, it also decries the “considerable” price of disengagement, bemoaning the process as “very painful” for Israel. An AIPAC spokesman downplayed the divide. “If Israel feels like this is good for them, then it's good,” he explained. “Israel will do what Israel will do.” But others are eschewing neutrality in a policy dispute that may be as consequential for them as it is for Sharon.

The dissension among the neocons mirrors the divisions in Sharon's Likud Party, where longtime Sharon rival Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed the Gaza pullout. But Netanyahu's position, and the settlers', is distinctly a minority perspective in Israel. “The split that has taken place between the pragmatists and the more right-wingers in Israel is now being reflected in the American debate,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S.–based support group for the Israeli peace movement.

Could Ariel Sharon, of all people, end up isolating the U.S. neocons on matters Middle Eastern? Stranger things have happened -- maybe.

-- Asheesh Kapur Siddique

Self-Made TV

Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but this August he and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt are taking the technology to the next level with the launch of Current, a new youth-focused, Internet-inspired cable channel. Current, which will be broadcast into about 20 million homes beginning August 1, aims to be MTV and Google rolled into one, a sort of televised blogosphere whose goal is to “democratize” broadcast media.

Gone are the 30- to 60-minute features that dominate network television. Instead, they've been replaced with 1- to 5-minute “pods,” short videos that will offer snippets of news, fashion, celebrity gossip, and technology updates. To top it all off, each half-hour of programming will conclude with a review of the most frequently searched topics from -- you guessed it -- Google.

While this sort of pod programming smacks of youth favorite MTV (and striving-for-youth staple VH1), Current -- which, contrary to the hopes of some, will be avowedly apolitical -- aims to take it one step further, building its professional programming around viewer-made videos submitted via the Web. Blogs made everyone a pundit; Current, apparently, will make everyone a producer.

So will Current deliver on the vision of grass-roots, participatory television?

“We are hopeful, but it remains to be seen if Current will be a truly alternative outlet and accessible to youth who don't usually have the resources to make their own videos,” said Jen Soriano, program director for the Youth Media Council, an organization that trains young people to be media activists. “Without mechanisms for reaching out to these communities, … this could be just another corporate giant, only with a friendlier face.”

In a world as competitive as cable television, balancing mass appeal with independent sensibilities is a challenge. Despite its grass-roots aspirations and pseudo-Leninist lingo (the company has a “vice president for marketing and vanguard ideas”), Current is no media outsider. Indeed, its management team includes Anne Zehren, the founding publisher of Teen People, and David Neuman, the former chief programming officer at CNN. How this merger of corporate savvy and do-it-yourself production will affect programming is just one of many unanswered questions swirling around the channel's launch.

Current will also be challenged to pack innovative news and cultural analysis into its short format, said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“Six minutes is better than 30 seconds on the nightly news,” Thompson said. “But that doesn't exactly revolutionize the way these stories are being told.”

-- Alyson Zureick

Transcript

From the White House press “gaggle,” July 11, 2005:

McClellan: If you'll let me finish.

Question: No, you're not finishing -- you're not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson's wife. So don't you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved or was he not? Because contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his wife, didn't he?

McClellan: David, there will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it.

Again, I've responded to the question.

Again, you're continuing to ask questions relating to an ongoing criminal investigation, and I'm just not going to respond any further.

I appreciate your questions. You can keep asking them, but you have my response.

I've responded to the questions.

I've responded to the questions, Dick.

Again, after the investigation is complete, I will be glad to talk about it at that point.

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