Why New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg Will Be Sorely Missed

Why New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg Will Be Sorely Missed

Very seldom are voters not disappointed: Campaign promises are routinely broken and seemingly idealistic politicians often sell out. Progressives’ hopes tend to be more regularly and bitterly disappointed than most.

So perhaps the greatest achievement of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg is that as a politician, he did not disappoint. Indeed, he greatly exceeded expectations.

The advent of Lautenberg’s political career was far from promising. When first elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey in 1982, the 58-year-old multi-millionaire had never held elective office. He was said to have bought his way into the Senate. He seemed like just another out-of-touch and ego-driven rich man, all but certain to lose after a single term.

But his critics had underestimated him, and not for the last time. Though Lautenberg was a wealthy man, he had been born in Paterson to a desperately poor immigrant Polish Jewish family in 1924, long before there was any such thing as a social safety net.

Lautenberg saw how FDR’s New Deal had transformed America for the better. A member of the Greatest Generation who fought World War II, the young vet returned to attend college on the G.I. Bill. He always gave due credit to government programs for his success and wanted others to benefit from them as well.  He understood, down to his capillaries, the basic progressive concept of solidarity. You don’t kick away the ladder that let you climb to the top; you leave it there for the next guy or gal — preferably in better condition than you found it.

While other New Jersey Democrats won fawning media coverage by embracing fashionable right-of-center policies, Lautenberg quietly set about working to protect the health and economic interests of his constituents. The man from a state that, famously, “don’t get no respect,” became perhaps the nation’s most underappreciated yet consistently progressive senator.

Lautenberg’s list of accomplishments is long, distinguished, and diverse.  He is responsible for legislation that bans smoking on commercial flights; for the Ryan White Care Act, which provides services for AIDS patients; and for environmental laws that ban offshore dumping, clean up hazardous wastes, and protect us all from toxic chemicals. He was a stalwart defender of labor and of a woman’s right to choose, and a lifelong proponent of gun control. Appropriately for a senator from a commuter state, he strongly supported rails, roads, and transit. He fought hard against Republican attempts to defund Amtrak and secured billions of dollars in highway and transit infrastructure projects for his home state. One of his last major efforts was a return to the New Deal politics that was his most basic creed when, two years ago, he introduced a bill calling for a 21st Century Works Progress Administration.

Lautenberg’s continuing popularity with New Jersey voters frequently flummoxed and frustrated his critics. The man had all the charisma of a doorknob. In a clubby institution like the Senate, he was not clubbable; often a crotchety S.O.B., he feuded openly even with fellow Jersey Democrats like former senator Robert Torricelli and Newark mayor Cory Booker. Above all, conventional wisdom pilloried Lautenberg as “too liberal.” Like clockwork every six years, the political and media establishment declared his re-election prospects to be weak. The GOP ran one high-profile, well-funded candidate after another against him — and every time, Lautenberg kicked said candidate to the curb. Whatever anybody else thought, Jersey voters liked him just fine. He was the rare honest pol in a notoriously corrupt state. And his New Deal populism proved to be enduringly popular.

As is the case with any elected official, there are some black marks on Frank Lautenberg’s record. He voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, against the first Clinton budget in 1993, and for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (although he later supported same-sex marriage). More often, however, he was extraordinarily prescient on important issues — keeping his head when, sadly, too few other elected Democrats kept theirs. Most impressively, he voted against NAFTA, against welfare reform, and against the Iraq War.

The World War II vet’s impassioned opposition to the war in Iraq brought some of his finest hours. On the floor of the Senate, accompanied by a hugely enlarged cartoon of a chicken, he  denounced Vice President Cheney as the “lead chicken hawk.” Chicken hawks, he said, “talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others. When it was their turn to serve, where were they? AWOL, that’s where they were.”

Lautenberg was the last of a now-extinct species: an old school, unapologetic, get-the-job-done New Deal liberal. In an economy where millions continue to suffer as the result of misconceived Herbert Hoover-like austerity policies, we are in sore need of many more public servants like him. He will be mourned and missed.

There <em>Is</em> A Kermit Gosnell Conspiracy — Just Not The One You Think

There Is A Kermit Gosnell Conspiracy — Just Not The One You Think

You may have heard about a dark conspiracy that’s afoot. An activist cabal has plotted to influence media coverage of the trial of a notorious abortion doctor. Their scheme has been wildly successful, leading to a dramatic shift in media attention. Only, as Salon’s Irin Carmon notes, the real conspirators shaping coverage of the murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell have been anti-choice activists and not, as the anti-choicers claim, their pro-choice counterparts.

Gosnell, as you may have heard, is a Philadelphia-based physician on trial for charges that include illegal abortions and the murders of a patient and seven newborns who died under his care. The allegations are horrific, and from the moment they were publicly revealed, feminist journalists and mainstream media outlets were on the story. In early 2011, Katha PollittMichelle Goldberg, and Amanda Marcotte wrote about Gosnell. Stories also appeared in the New York Times and CBSNews.com (a comprehensive roundup of coverage can be found here). The case was far from being ignored.

But last week, anti-choice activists unveiled a clever campaign designed to persuade the media, and the American public, of the opposite. An op-ed by Fox News Democrat Kirsten Powers kicked things off. Soon after, an army of flying Twitter monkeys descended on prominent journalists, berating them for allegedly ignoring the case.

Unfortunately, a number of them swallowed the sucker bait. Among the journalists who clearly didn’t do their homework and falsely blamed feminists, and the media, for ignoring Gosnell were Dave Weigel, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Megan McArdle — centrist and center-right pundits all.

Next came conservative bloggers, who used the case to screech about the media’s alleged liberal “bias” — how fresh! A few even claimed that media coverage of Gosnell demonstrates the need to employ more Christian-right reporters. The usual mainstream media bowing and scraping followed, as both the New York Times and the Washington Post promised, and delivered, still more coverage.

So, more than a week into the anti-choice movement’s campaign, what have learned? For opponents of women’s reproductive freedom, the case is of prime strategic importance, because it can be used to portray abortion clinics as dangerous, late-term abortions as common, and abortion doctors as monsters. These assertions are false (for example, nearly 90 percent of abortions occur in the first trimester, and only 1.5 percent occur after 20 weeks), but to the extent the general public believes them, they can increase political momentum to place more obstacles between a woman and her right to choose. The media surrender to activist demands for additional trial coverage is, then, a triumph. Score a victory — and a big one — for the anti-choicers.

Another winner here is the vast right-wing conspiracy. They have won another battle in their decades-long war to “work the refs” and shame the media into serving as a propaganda arm for the conservative movement. Once more, they have played this game very well indeed.

Finally, we come to the centrist and center-right journalists who, with unseemly haste, sought to mollify the anti-choicers’ complaints. In doing so, they embarrassed themselves; they accused the media of “ignoring” the case when a five-second Google search would have provided ample evidence contradicting that claim. Nor did they bother to provide much context. How much national media coverage do U.S. trials get anyway, particularly in this era of ever more limited media resources? Jodi Arias is a tabloid heroine, but so far her murder case, which has transfixed millions of cable television viewers, has produced only one New York Times story.

Kirsten Powers claims that the Gosnell trial is about “basic human rights.” But it is a criminal trial, and has been covered as such by local media. A case that genuinely is about human rights is the Bradley Manning trial, which concerns vitally important issues such as national security and civil liberties. Yet as PBS.org reports, no mainstream U.S. reporters are covering Manning’s current pretrial hearings.

The centrist media types are dead wrong about the meaning of this trial and the coverage it’s received,. But they do get to score cheap points off feminists, earn instant credibility with wingnuts, and pat themselves on the back for being such fearless contrarians. How flattering to their egos — and how nice for their careers!

Alas, there is one group that stands to lose from the anti-choicers’ media coup — and that is poor women. As Bryce Covert points out, those who submitted to Kermit Gosnell’s grisly ministrations were destitute women who had no other choice. The services Gosnell offered were as much as 80 percent cheaper than comparable treatment elsewhere. If anti-choicers succeed in restricting abortion access, more low-income women will be forced to resort to ghastly back-alley operators like Gosnell. Women of means will always have more civilized options, but poor women will face far higher chances of suffering and death. As the media falls all over itself to curry favor with the anti-choice movement, it would be refreshing if reporters and producers at least took the opportunity to report on the impact that restricted abortion access continues to have on the lives — and deaths — of poor women.  But somehow I doubt that will be very high on their to-do list.

AP Photo/Philadelphia Police Department via Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, File

The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

First let’s consider the contrarians. Young Matthew Yglesias, who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused, wrote a refreshingly honest piece that noted the seductions of contrarianism: “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.” It was easy to feel the glow of being an utterly unique snowflake, and yet at the same time to join the establishment. How special!

What Yglesias calls the“fake-dissident posture” held a powerful allure for war supporter Dan Savage as well. Reading between the lines of his stridently pro-war 2003 column, it’s clear that the anti-war types worked his last nerve. Everything about them is uncool — their posters are “sad-looking” and their slogans are cheesy. True, the left can be deeply irritating. Protests are great, but why can’t the organizers come up with better music? Yet that’s a stunningly shallow reason to support a brutal war that left over100,000 people dead.

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

Paul Berman was another journalist who tirelessly refought the good war from his armchair. As he explained in a roundtable, Iraq was important because it provided an opportunity for intellectuals to “speak up.” How lovely for them! Admittedly, says Berman, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “counterproductive in some respects,” because “for a while, they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering.” [emphasis added].

On the tape, writer David Rieff is aghast: “All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!” My God, indeed.

Let’s not neglect the pundits of the so-called “decent left.” Obsessed with preserving the martial virtue of the Democratic Party, these types zealously advocated a militaristic version of liberalism.  Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, figured prominently in this group. To Beinart, opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of  “abject pacifism”, and he all but advocatedpurging them from the Democratic Party, Cold War-style. They might be liberals, but wanted the world to know they were respectable thinkers– not filthy hippies.

The next group, the ones I call the crusading superheroes, advocated intervening in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. They envisioned themselves sweeping into the country like red, white, and blue-clad Captain Americas, ridding the country of evil supervillain Saddam Hussein and spreading democracy and prosperity to a grateful nation. George Packer, who as late as 2005 was claiming the war was still “winnable,” was among the most prominent of these. The compulsion of these types to cast themselves as saviors made them blind to what anyone with eyes could see: Iraq was never a promising case for intervention, as the real experts on the region were desperately trying to tell people. But facts, schmacts — what these guys were jonesing for was an occasion to assert their moral purity.

Finally, there’s the most powerful, if most deeply buried justification of all: Iraq provided an opportunity for dweebish, pasty, desk-bound dudes to indulge in macho daydreams. Throughout history, men have asserted masculine dominance through imperial adventures. While few liberal female pundits were pro-war, many centrist and liberal men were unable to resist the war’s siren call.

The most infamous example of  such macho knucklehead punditry is Thomas Friedman’s 2003 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. The war, he said then, was “unquestionably worth doing” so we could tell the Iraqis to “suck on this.” Commentary so inane and puerile would sound outrageous coming out of the mouth of Friedman’s fictional look-alike Ron Burgundy; that an actual, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist said it simply boggles the mind.

By 2011, writing as the last American troops pulled out of Iraq, Friedman’s macho swagger had completely vanished. Was the war a wise choice? “My answer is twofold: ‘No’ and ‘Maybe, sort of, we’ll see.’ ” Weasel words don’t get any more weaselly. This week he said merely that America “paid too much” for the war.

Writing this week in The New Yorker, Packer admits “the war was a disaster for Iraq and the U.S. alike. It was conceived in deceit and born in hubris.” Note the passive voice — he takes no personal responsibility for helping to foment the media stampede into war.

For what it’s worth, Beinart eventually saw the war as a tragic mistake. But his repentance came far too late. But Berman clearly has learned nothing and has no regrets. He wrote in The New Republic this week that “the isolationist alternative” to the war was “fantastical nonsense.”

Sullivan eventually denounced the war as tragically wrong – but in the early days, when it actually mattered, he was among its most obnoxious cheerleaders. His buddy Hitchens died in 2011, without ever having second thoughts about Iraq.

As for Dan Savage, his position grew more ambivalent within six months after that highly belligerent column —  but he doesn’t seem to have written a word about Iraq since then.

The inability of these pundits to think straight may simply be a symptom of narcissism poisoning. For them, invasion and war were all about presenting their preferred face to the world — and to themselves. Henry James once wrote that a writer should be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” For these pundits, everything was lost — everything, that is, but their own overgrown egos.

Daring For Democracy: How The Suffragists Upstaged Woodrow Wilson In Washington

Daring For Democracy: How The Suffragists Upstaged Woodrow Wilson In Washington

On March 3, 1913, President-elect Woodrow Wilson arrived at Union Station in Washington, DC. It was the day before his inauguration, but the teeming mobs that typically appeared to greet a new president were nowhere to be found. Instead, the streets of Washington seemed deserted. A disappointed Wilson asked, “Where are all the people?” “Over on the Avenue watching the suffrage parade,” he was told.

Upstaging a president is no easy feat. But then, few Americans had ever witnessed so electrifying a spectacle as the suffragist parade that was then marching its way up Pennsylvania Avenue — and into the history books. The parade was brilliant political pageantry, as well as a deeply subversive act. Historian Christine Stansell has noted that in the early 20th century, for a woman to “expos[e] oneself to the public eye” was “in itself a transgression,” something akin to prostitution. And on that cold, sunny day in March, over 5,000 women came together to boldly stake a claim not only to public space, but to American democracy itself.

Their action came not a moment too soon. In the years leading up to the march, the suffrage movement had been on life support. No suffrage legislation had passed in years, and supporters were deeply frustrated. But change was in the air. A new wave of suffragists was challenging the older generation of doughty Victorian matrons who had long dominated the movement. These New Women were passionate, insouciant, and daring. Many of them had been influenced by the radical ideas of British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.

One of Pankhurst’s acolytes was a young American named Alice Paul, who had traveled to England to study but soon became swept up in suffrage activism there. In 1910, the 25-year-old Paul returned to the United States, eager to shake up the decorous American suffrage movement with some Pankhurst-style militancy.

In short order, Paul got herself appointed as the new chair of the long-dormant Congressional Committee of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and began to organize a massive suffrage parade scheduled for the day before the inauguration. Her timing was no accident. Paul sought to revive the women’s suffrage amendment, and she knew that if the parade took place on that date, it would have a captive audience.  She also hoped to send a message to Congress and the new president about the growing political power of the suffrage movement.

Nationwide, enthusiasm about the planned parade ran high. Paul issued a steady stream of press releases, and newspapers eagerly covered the parade-related activities of local suffrage organizations. A newsreel that is said to be America’s oldest captured a group of New York women traveling to the parade.

Alice Paul was a woman of many gifts. Among them was her remarkable eye for visual spectacle. Paul was determined, as one historian put it, to “make suffrage visible,“ and she took immense care in orchestrating the parade’s pageantry.  Every color in the rainbow was to be used, and organizers assigned thematic colors for each group of paraders.

Leading the parade was the beautiful suffragist Inez Mulholland, arrayed in a dazzling white gown and riding a white horse. The diverse group of marchers included women laborers and professionals, immigrants, male supporters of suffrage, and a delegation of African-American women from Howard University. (The organizers, fearing that Southern participants would object, had initially tried to exclude the latter group, but relented after facing protests). The parade also included marching bands, mounted brigades, heralds, an elaborate allegorical tableau representing “progress,” and numerous floats.

Over half a million people poured out onto the capital’s streets to witness the parade. Quickly, things became dangerous. Hostile spectators inflicted verbal and physical harassment on the marchers, while the Washington police failed to restore order. Over 200 marchers were treated in local hospitals for injuries; fortunately, none were serious.

The next day, the parade made national headlines. The New York Times described the pageant as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.” Along with its praise for the marchers, the press heaped contempt on the violent spectators, and outrage on the authorities who had failed to keep public order. Contributions and new volunteers poured in to the Congressional Campaign.

But a new day for women had not dawned just yet; President Wilson, alas, refused to budge on the suffrage issue. In the end, it would take a combination of the increasingly radical tactics of Alice Paul and her followers, the more traditional modes of politicking practiced by the establishment suffragists, and the complex effects of a world war before the tide was finally turned. Women were not guaranteed the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

The movement for women’s suffrage had begun in 1848 in Seneca Falls, but the suffrage parade of 1913 was undoubtedly its turning point. There are some intriguing parallels between the suffragists of 1913 and feminists today. By about 1910, it looked as though the suffrage movement had ground to a halt, and today one might say the same about modern-day feminism. Stephanie Coontz recently wrote a much-discussed New York Times op-ed lamenting the fact that gender equality in America seems to have stalled. The last major piece of legislation that advanced women’s rights, the Family and Medical Leave Act, was enacted a full two decades ago. Women’s progress in the workplace has slowed, reproductive rights are under siege, and pop culture misogyny (see: Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars) abounds.

But 100 years ago, when women were far less powerful than they are today, they found brilliantly creative ways to fight back. Like today’s Slutwalkers, they made feminist action look irreverent, festive, and fun. Like today’s burgeoning feminist internet culture, they ingeniously deployed new media to advance women. And just as the nasty attacks on Planned Parenthood and Sandra Fluke created a powerful pro-woman backlash, the ugly behavior of anti-suffrage rioters at the 1913 parade fueled public outrage that ultimately strengthened the suffrage cause.

Feminists today face many daunting challenges, but it’s inspiring to recognize that at a time when our foremothers confronted even more formidable obstacles, they responded with great courage, ingenuity, and even joy. One hundred years later, their example still burns bright.

Photo of Alice Paul sewing suffrage flag via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons