Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Larry Craig in Focus: Can September Redeem an Awkward August?

By Ron Elving

August is normally the month when big-time Washington decision makers get out of town to relax and recharge. They spend time with normal people, some of whom may be family members. They remember what life is supposed to be about, and how to treat others with respect.

With luck, they return to their offices with their decency and reasonableness restored. That's one reason September is normally a pretty productive month in Washington.

But don't count on that happening this year. This August recess has been anything but a time-out for the power structure. The Washington wars have continued without interruption, and casualties have continued to mount.

As usual, a lot of the hostilities have focused on personalities and the arc of careers. Most recent of the victims is Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who may become the first member of Congress to be almost literally laughed out of office.

Craig was arrested in a men's room in Minneapolis in June and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in August. He managed to evade media notice both times. But when he was finally found out, he became an object of national derision, not so much for his offense as for his defense.

Having been caught soliciting a male undercover officer, Craig was initially willing to plead guilty. But now he says he erred in doing so and was only trying to hide the incident from one newspaper that was hounding him.

There may have been a time when Craig's party would have rallied around — or at least dropped a cone of silence over — any embattled member of its ranks. That's what the GOP did when Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, apologized in July for his use of a D.C. "escort service." But there was no such forbearance for Craig, who must have made his colleagues regard Vitter's travails as the good old days.

Whether it was Craig's initial guilty plea or the gay angle or the distastefulness of the details, party sympathy deserted him. Fellow Republicans called on him to resign. The presidential candidate he was working for, Mitt Romney, called his actions "disgusting." It went downhill from there.

Incredibly, though, Craig's tumble was only one of the negative stories competing for media attention as August ground to a close.

As Craig's fate hung in the balance, the president was in New Orleans marking the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophe that blighted a city and battered his presidency. There was a clear sense about Mr. Bush's visit there at midweek that neither he nor the city had recovered.

Earlier in the week, the president had been forced to accept the resignation of his friend Alberto Gonzales, who was not only his attorney general but one of the longest-serving and most loyal of his Texas inner circle. The president had not only vowed to stand by Gonzales, he had proven steadfast after Gonzales performed disastrously before congressional committees. The loyalty was there to the end, in both directions. But, in the end, it was not enough.

Of course, hovering over these personnel matters are a host of issues that are not even close to being resolved. There is the war in Iraq, which the president remains determined to win. This insistence on persisting to victory will set the two parties at odds in September, no matter what we learn from the reports of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Sept. 11 (the reporting day chosen with both eyes on the calendar).

There are also the questions of warrantless surveillance, and of White House refusal to respond to subpoenas, and the threat to veto the bill expanding health insurance guarantees for children.

Atop all that, Congress in September will send the president a series of appropriations bills, most of which will exceed his line-of-death spending levels — probably triggering more vetoes.

In short, the chasm between executive and legislative branches yawns as wide as it has since the days of Richard Nixon.

So who can harbor hope that September will be better than August?

The president did not immediately name a successor to Gonzales, and the nomination he makes may offer a moment for redemption. If the person he names is the sort who can be swiftly confirmed, there will be a chance for a bridge across the chasm — at least on the health and legal issues.

As for the spending battles, or the challenge of Iraq, it is hard to see how the peace is made. And those who had hoped that a restful August might presage and enable a better September have already seen those hopes demolished.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A piece of communal paradise in Baltimore

This weekend three of my dearest friends and I camped one night in a Baltimore graveyard. The St. Peter's Graveyard was abandoned by the church in the late 60s, but it was rescued by the community of nonviolent resistance, Jonah House. The great Liz MacAllister, and her late great husband Phil Berrigan founded Jonah House together more than 30 years ago. The place is simply a piece of paradise in the middle of an inner city. The paradise is created not by the wonderful setting of the graveyard and the woods over-growing one side of the property, nor of the bountiful apple and plum trees on the property. The paradise that has been created by Jonah House is their community. I was truly touched by the warm reception and absolute inclusion we received from Liz (who always makes an impression on me), Susan Crane, Joe, and Sisters Ardeth and Carol (of the Colorado Ploughshares action). Eta and Mike were away on their honeymoon still. Soon after arriving, Susan gave us a tour of the house, including a beautiful garden room with goldfish and a compost toilet and the basement food pantry where they gather food for distribution to the poor throughout their neighborhood.

We spent a good part of the afternoon touring the graveyard. It is sad to realize that the church was simply going to leave this old graveyard to be forgotten. I saw many tombstones dating from the 1870s, and as late as the early 1960s. We also got to meet the many guinea hens, hair sheep, the two nubian goats (known from protests at the White House) Paul and Silas, and the two peaceful and elegant black llamas Naomi and Micah. We observed Naomi leading the herd around the property (minus the guinea hens who appeared to have their own nomadic community), and David began painting the animals. Liz later remarked that he had captured much of the gregarious Silas' personality.

The community is incredibly spiritual and welcoming, and after a game of "community Scrabble" with Liz and Susan, we retired for the evening. Luckily the rain had reduced the temperature. Eve was in one tent, Malachy and I shared another tent. And David was generously offered a room in the house.

Sunday we woke and walked a bit around the property before Jonah House's larger faith community arrived for their Sunday Worship. It was an incredibly welcoming service, although clearly Christian in orientation, it was very welcoming of other faith traditions -- emphasizing that we all had something extremely valuable to share and contribute. Sister Ardeth lead us in our worship, and she used some fascinating scripture passages to discuss concepts of exclusion and inclusion. We all shared our own experiences of being excluded, so we could always remember to make attempts to include others in the future.

We ended our visit with watching the film "Conviction," which was a documentary of Carol and Ardeth's (and one other Dominican Sister) Ploughshares Action in 2002. Ardeth and an Irish woman who played guitar during the service chatted with us a bit after the film as we readied for our departure. This documentary was truly inspiring. Eve and Malachy told me later their initial reactions were a readiness to hammer on missile silos. I thought to myself, maybe someday when I am retired I'll join this tradition started by Phil Berrigan himself; I bowed my head the last time I passed his grave on the property.

All of us agreed that we'll all remember our first visit to Jonah House. And I look forward to our next visit.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Can you imagine what we could spend on peace?

~As delivered by Pete Perry at the William Penn House, Washington, D.C.
August 16, 2007

Good evening, my friends. My brothers and sisters in the peace and justice movement. I wanted to talk to you this evening about something that is often glossed over in the current American peace movement, something that I believe has kept us from gaining more strength and broadening our movement, and in fact diversifying it. And that is the connection of the peace movement to the social justice movement. They are in some ways one movement, but commonly they are viewed separately.

I pose this question to you – how can we possibly have justice here at home – in Washington, DC – when our government is spending more than $600 Billion on total military expenditures in 2006 alone? Peace is great – it is what we all want, but if we truly did have peace – if our government did turn away from invading and occupying other nations -- which never posed a serious threat to our shores – would we make sure our government spend those hundreds of billions of dollars on what is most greatly needed in our country? Would we purchase more and improved school facilities, university educations for everyone who wanted one, and build universal healthcare (which every other developed nation seems to have)? Or would this money simply go into new baseball and football stadiums, or largely devoured through additional tax cuts for the wealthy few?

You see, I truly believe there is one significant progressive social movement in America, and although it may seem divided most of the time – it is indeed one – and it is the peace AND justice movement. If we have peace in the world we can have justice here. Tanks, missiles, assault riffles don’t feed that child going to bed hungry tonight. In fact President Eisenhower, a general himself, said that each new weapon system deprives families of food. And if we have more justice in our nation, all of our communities will be more peaceful. If more young people had opportunities to attend a university, enrich their minds, learn needed skills – there would be less desperation on our city streets.

If there were more schools, teachers, libraries and public spaces for children – there would be greater hope, a greater sense of community and a true sense of direction in many young people’s lives. Our city would be more peaceful. All of America’s cities would be.

For what our Federal government spends on just one day in Iraq, we could instead offer 34,904 Four Year College Scholarships. So last March was four years of this Iraq War. Instead of pursuing this illegal and immoral war, our government could have offered more than 50.9 million Four Year College scholarships. Can you imagine?

For those 4 and a half years of war in Iraq, which we have had now – here in D.C. – we could have had 17,488 additional low-income housing units built. Here in D.C. we could have hired 33,660 additional teachers. And here in D.C. we could have given comprehensive health care insurance for one year to more than 1,160,000 children. Can you imagine?

Now if you could take a minute with me and consider simply the cost in human lives – the vast majority of which were snuffed out after our president declared, “mission accomplished.” Reports are now saying that anywhere between 70,000 to nearly 1 million Iraqis have been killed during our nation’s aggressive war against their country. Can you imagine?

Today we past the 3,700 dead U.S. people in Iraq. There are no real accurate numbers on Iraqis killed, but studies are estimating up to nearly 1 million. Would you say this is money well spent?

So what has the war in Iraq cost us up to this day, according to the Congressional Budget Office – over $452 Billion. With Afghanistan thrown in – we can basically double this amount. Would you say this is money is well spent?

Today we see plenty of tribal violence and the re-emergence of the Taliban in several parts of Afghanistan – and clearly chaos and severe sectarian violence rules the day in Iraq.

The peace and justice movement can no longer afford to be divided. It must be united for not just economical reasons – but for moral reasons. I joyously stand before you in one of the great peace churches of the world. The Quakers have a great history of resisting war and injustice. Let us find ways to make them the role models for our youth – not a spoiled and failed oilman from Texas. It is my hope that spiritual leaders – particular those of the traditional peace churches such as the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers will take on a more prominent role in the peace and justice movement.

I urge you to sign the petition to defund this illegal and immoral war which is now on the AFSC Website.

In directly linking peace and social justice, let us remember what our great American leader Dr. King said during his famous 1967 Riverside speech: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

And Mohandas Gandhi spoke words more than 60 years ago that still ring true today, whether in Baghdad or in our backyard: “The choice is clear – it’s either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Thank you. I hope to see you with us on the streets on Sept. 15th, and on Sept. 20th there will be a nonviolent direct action demanding an end to the war. Regarding the second one, you can see me for further details.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sheehan to challenge Pelosi

I was there the day about three weeks ago when Cindy announced she was running against Pelosi. It was outside of Rep. John Conyers'office. I think change is in the air, and all politics is local. The San Fran area is perhaps the most staunchly progressive in the whole country. Tomorrow morning I will be dropping a check for Cindy's campaign in the mail.

Peace activist seeks SF-area House seat
Associated Press report

Citing her son as inspiration, a tearful Cindy Sheehan announced her candidacy Thursday for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The anti-war activist, a former resident of Vacaville, said she will run as an independent against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has represented San Francisco in Congress since 1987.

"The country is ripe for a change," said Sheehan, who spoke at a news conference in San Francisco, with her slain son's photograph attached to the podium. "It's going to start right here and right now."

Sheehan's 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed in Iraq in 2004. Since then, she has gained international notoriety by setting up camp outside President Bush's Texas ranch and demanding to meet with the president.

Last month, she announced her intention to run against Pelosi if the speaker didn't move to impeach Bush by July 23. On Thursday, she said Pelosi had "protected the status quo" of the corporate elite and had lost touch with people in her district, most of whom, she said, want American troops out of Iraq.

Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi aide, said the speaker has always opposed the war in Iraq and has focused on bringing troops home "safely and soon." He would not comment on Sheehan's candidacy.

Sheehan admitted she has no funds for a campaign, but said she plans to immediately get started raising money. Without giving further specifics, Sheehan said she wouldn't accept money from corporations and would run on a platform of universal health care. Sheehan said she also wants to make college affordable and improve ethics in the legislative and executive branches.

She also said the money being spent on the war in Iraq would be better spent domestically.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former high-level Pentagon analyst who in 1969 leaked the Pentagon Papers to Congress and the media, showed his support for Sheehan. Ellsberg was arrested twice with other protesters outside Bush's Texas ranch.

"At the moment, facing a well-funded, powerful incumbent without party support, the odds against Cindy appear insuperable," Ellsberg said. "But we plan to change that."