Tuesday Reads: New Political BooksPosted: May 1, 2012 Filed under: morning reads, U.S. Politics | Tags: Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, books, Carl Bernstein, Deep Throat, Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez, ExxonMobil, Lyndon B. Johnson, Norman Ornstein, Republican crazies, Robert Caro, Steve Coll, Thomas Mann, Watergate 21 Comments
There are lots of interesting books coming out this month, so thought I’d preview a few of them. I pre-ordered the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, which comes out today. I have the first two volumes, and I admit they’ve just been sitting on my bookshelf for years unread. I thought I might read vol. 4 first, since it covers the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s first few years as President. Then maybe I’ll be inspired to read the earlier volumes. Caro is 77 this year. I hope he has time to finish this series, which is considered one of the greatest biographies of all time.
Another interesting book that is being released today is Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. The book is an investigation of the giant corporation beginning with the Exxon Valdez oil spill and ending with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Salon published an excerpt from the book on Sunday.
Also coming out today is It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. The authors had an op-ed in the Washington Post a few days ago to preview the book: Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.
And then yesterday there was a bit of a media circus over a book that will be released next Tuesday, May 8: Yours in Truth, by Jeff Himmelman–a biography of Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post back when it was a real newspaper. New York Magazine published an excerpt from the book that led to a fascinating back and forth over what I think are some pretty minor issues about the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage. The fascinating aspects of the story are the reactions of the people involved: Himmelman, Bradlee, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein.
Jeff Himmelman worked for years as a research assistant to Bob Woodward, helping him with articles for the WaPo, as well as Woodward’s book Bush at War. Woodward was Himmelman’s mentor.
My office was on the third floor of Bob’s house, down the hall from the framed apology from Nixon’s press secretary that sits at the top of the staircase. I was back working as Bob’s research assistant for a few months, after having more or less lived in his house from 1999 to 2002. Bob had been my first real boss, hiring me when I was 23. I’d been with him on September 11, as he charged toward the Capitol while the plane presumably targeting it was still in the air, and had helped him begin Bush at War, the first of his blockbuster portraits of the Bush presidency that were a late turning point in his legendary career. As a reporter, I was in awe of him. I had also gotten to know Carl Bernstein, who called often and sometimes stayed in the guest bedroom on the other end of the third floor. I still remember the charge I got out of relaying Carl’s phone messages—Bernstein for Woodward.
Carl was important to Bob, but Ben Bradlee was something entirely different. Bob revered him, and so I did, too. I had only met Ben once, for a few seconds in Bob’s kitchen, but I had seen All the President’s Men. When Bob said, “I told them they should hire you,” I leaped at the chance.
Woodward’s mentor had been Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the WaPo. So naturally when Woodward suggested Himmelman as a co-author of a memoir by Bradlee, Himmelman was thrilled. Eventually, Bradlee decided he didn’t want to write the book, but he was fine with Himmelman writing a biography. Bradlee generously opened up his archives to the young writer. All of which led up to a mini-Shakespearean tragedy.
Himmelman discovered that Bradlee had on a few occasions questioned whether Woodward’s portrayal of his relationship with Deep Throat had been embellished–perhaps the story about the signals he used to schedule meetings (using a flowerpot on Woodward’s apartment balcony, which has one of the best stainless steel juliet balconies by the way) with the mysterious source wasn’t quite true or perhaps there were more or fewer meetings in the parking garage than Woodward had described. Bradlee had told an interviewer in 1990:
Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.
To me, that’s a big *so what?* Those details aren’t integral to the Watergate story.
The second big revelation in yesterday’s New York Magazine article was that one of Carl Bernstein’s anonymous sources had actually been had actually been a grand juror in Judge Sirica’s investigation. If that had ever come out, Woodward and Bernstein would have been jailed. The two young reporters and Bradlee had made the decision to approach some of the grand jurors, although it would have been a crime for the jurors to reveal any of the evidence. It was risky, but frankly, I have no problem with it. Journalists should take risks. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
In early December, Judge John Sirica was told by prosecutors that a grand juror had been approached by the Post reporters but had revealed nothing. Incensed, Sirica called Woodward and Bernstein into court two weeks later and warned against any further meddling. “Had they actually obtained information from that grand juror,” he wrote later, “they would have gone to jail.” According to the Post’s lawyers, who negotiated on their behalf, Sirica almost locked them up anyway.
Before the scolding from Sirica, Bernstein visited the apartment of a woman he identified, in the book, as “Z.” She wouldn’t talk to him in person, but she slipped her number under the door. “Your articles have been excellent,” she told him, advising him to read their own reporting carefully. “There is more truth in there than you must have realized,” she said. “Your perseverance has been admirable.” She sounded, Carl thought, “like some kind of mystic.”
Through an old memo from Bernstein, Himmelman learned that this woman was actually a grand juror, although Bernstein didn’t know that when he first approached her. They used her as a source in All the President’s Men without revealing her identity. Again, I have no problem with that. No one is going to jail for this now.
But Bob Woodward especially is very upset. Bernstein is concerned, but less than Woodward, who IMHO is self-involved, pompous ass. Anyway New York Mag published a response from Woodward and Bernstein along with Himmelman’s article.
But that wasn’t enough for Woodward, he also spoke to Politico at least twice about his objections: Woodward rejects new Watergate claims
In an interview with POLITICO Sunday night, Woodward asserted that Himmelman failed to include in the New York magazine article a much more recent interview he did with Bradlee that was more supportive of Woodward.
“There’s a transcript of an interview that Himmelman did with Bradlee 18 months ago in which Ben undercuts the [New York magazine] piece. It’s amazing that it’s not in Jeff’s piece,” Woodward said. “It’s almost like the way Nixon’s tapings did him in, Jeff’s own interview with Bradlee does him in.”
According to Woodward’s reading of the transcript, Bradlee told Himmelman: “If you would ask me, do I think that [Woodward] embellished, I would say no.”
Bradlee and wife Sally Quinn also defended Woodward to Politico. Poor Woodward–stabbed in the back by his beloved protege: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child! (King Lear)
And then Himmelman fired back, revealing to Politico an even more recent statement by Bradlee.
That interview between Bradlee and Himmelman took place on March 9, 2011, just two days after Woodward met with Bradlee and Himmelman at Bradlee’s house to encourage them not to publish the potentially damaging quotes from his 1990 interview.
In the 2011 interview, which Himmelman provided to POLITICO and are included in his forthcoming biography of Bradlee, Bradlee reiterates his initial doubts about Woodward’s reporting.
“I wanted to be crystal clear about it, so I just went ahead and asked him,” Himmelman writes. “‘You said what you said in 1990, and there’s a record of it…’”
Himmelman: “And you don’t retract it?”
Bradlee: “I don’t.”
If, like me you’re still fascinated by the Watergate story and by political journalism generally do go read the Himmelman article in NY Magazine. The part I found most interesting was how upset Woodward was by these minor revelations–he even begged Himmelman not to include them in the book and convinced Bradlee to also ask that Himmelman leave them out of the book. Woodward tried to convince Himmelman himself and then showed up at Bradlee’s house to enlist his mentor’s help. From the NY Mag. article:
When Bob arrived, he didn’t look like he’d slept a lot. We shook hands, but only in the most perfunctory way. Ben sat at the head of the dining-room table, and I sat to Ben’s left, facing Bob. There was no small talk. Bob had brought a thick manila folder with him, which he set down heavily on the table in a way that he meant for us to notice. When Ben asked what it was, Bob said, “Data.” Then he asked Ben what he thought of the whole situation.
“I’ve known this young man for some years now,” Ben said, meaning me, “and I trust his skills and his intent.” Then he looked down at the transcript and said, “Nothing in here really bothers me, but I know there’s something in here that bothers you. What’s in here that bothers you?”
Bob went into his pitch, which he proceeded to repeat over the course of the meeting. He would read the “residual fear” line out loud, and then say he couldn’t ﬁgure out how Ben could still have had doubts about his reporting so many years after Nixon resigned. This was the unresolvable crux of the problem, and one they circled for the duration of the meeting: How could Ben have doubted the ﬂowerpots and the garage meetings, when the rest of the reporting had turned out to be true? Bob thought this was inconsistent and hurtful. Ben didn’t. Bob tried everything he could to get Ben to disavow what he had said, or at least tell me I couldn’t use it. Ben wouldn’t do either of those things. “Bob, you’ve made your point,” Ben said after Bob had made his pitch four or five times. “Quit while you’re ahead.”
Clearly Bradlee agrees with me that this is no big deal. But Woodward is worried about his legacy. Sorry, Bob. You already sold out your legacy by becoming the Bush administration’s court stenographer.
Bob turned to me. I had worked for him; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding. You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments. “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times. The quotes from the interview with Barbara were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.
The article ends with the further revelation that the original tape of the 1990 interview has disappeared from the archive.
“What does that mean?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think Woodward’s got it?”
“Maybe,” I said. He laughed, and then I laughed. The Watergate parallels were a little much, though we were surely imagining things. “His reaction to this thing was off the charts.”
“Off the charts!” Ben said. “It suggests that he’s really worried. That it might be true.”
Who cares about these little revelations about a long ago scandal? I don’t. Sadly, if Watergate happened today, it would be just a minor blip on the political radar. Huge scandals and abuses of power are now routinely ignored or defended by the supine and power-worshiping corporate media. But the insight this story provides into the psychology of Bob Woodward is fascinating.
Sorry this ended up being so long. I hope you’re not all bored stiff. So what’s on your reading list today?
Beyond Influence: Buying US LawPosted: August 11, 2011 Filed under: Big Pharma, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, collective bargaining, Corporate Crime, Domestic Policy, Economy, Environmental Protection, financial institutions, Global Financial Crisis, Gulf Oil Spill, Health care reform, Labor unions, legislation, Surreality, The Bonus Class, We are so F'd | Tags: ALEC, Bayer, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, PFizer, VISA, Wal-Mart 23 Comments
“Corporations are people, my friends.”
Mitt Romney, in a speech today in Iowa
I’ve wanted to write about ALEC for awhile. I tripped across this very succinct explanation in my print copy of Bloomberg Business Week that made me revisit my plans. Ever wonder why a bunch of weird ass bills suddenly show up simultaneously in a bunch of legislatures that say things that are basically against the positions of modern science, medicine, and economics? Well, chances are that some huge corporation has written that bill that will become law in no one’s interest but their own, and it was penned by some member of ALEC.
Kim Thatcher, a Republican state representative in Oregon, introduced a sharply worded anti-cap-and-trade bill this year that said, “There has been no credible economic analysis of the costs associated with carbon mandates.” Apparently, that view is widely shared. Legislation with that exact language has been introduced in dozens of states, including Montana, New Hampshire, and New Mexico.
It’s not plagiarism. It’s a strategy. The bills weren’t penned by Thatcher or her fellow legislators in Helena, Concord, and Santa Fe. They were written by a little-known group in Washington with outsize clout, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Corporate benefactors such as Koch Industries and ExxonMobil (XOM) help fund ALEC with membership dues and pay extra for a seat at the legislative drafting table.
Among ALEC’s prominent members are Pfizer (PFE), Wal-Mart (WMT), Bayer (BAYZF), and Visa (V), according to ALEC annual meeting documents provided by an attendee. The organization’s legislative agenda includes limiting the power of unions, fighting environmental regulations, and overturning President Obama’s health-care reform law. ALEC says it gets about 200 state laws passed each year. The corporate influence is hard to trace and can produce a return on investment that would make a hedge fund manager drool.
“This is just another hidden way for corporations to buy their way into the legislative process,” says Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, which seeks to reduce money in politics. Reagan Weber, an ALEC spokeswoman, says the group simply facilitates the sharing of information and “good conservative policy.”
ALEC was founded in 1973 by two of the conservative movement’s intellectual midwives, both now dead: Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois and activist Paul Weyrich, who also was a founder of the Heritage Foundation. As a tax-exempt organization, ALEC doesn’t disclose its corporate donors or its member lists beyond those who serve as committee chairmen.
In exchange for annual membership dues of as much as $25,000 plus a fee of $3,000 to $10,000 to get on a bill-writing “task force,” Koch and ExxonMobil representatives sat beside elected officials and policy analysts at an ALEC meeting in April 2010, helping them write model energy legislation that would later be introduced in statehouses around the country, according to the documents. The legislators pay $100 for a two-year membership. The task force bills are considered finished only after the legislators and private-sector members vote separately to approve them, giving each side a veto. Once a model bill is complete, it’s up to ALEC’s legislator members to go back to their home states and shepherd it into law.
ALEC is on the radar of many organizations including the American Association for Justice who keeps track of their activities and publishes white papers on this group of bill-writers for profit, greed and the destruction of public resources.
(W)hile the membership appears to be public sector, the bankroll is almost entirely private sector. In fact, public sector membership dues account for only around one percent of ALEC’s annual revenues. ALEC claims to be nonpartisan, but in fact its free-market, pro-business mission is clear.
The result has been a consistent pipeline of special interest legislation being funneled into state capitols. Thanks to ALEC, 826 bills were introduced in the states in 2009 and 115 were enacted into law.
Behind the scenes at ALEC, the nuts and bolts of lobbying and crafting legislation is done by large corporate defense firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon. A law firm with strong ties to the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, it has long used ALEC’s ability to get a wide swath of state laws enacted to further the interests of its corporate clients.
ALEC’s campaigns and model legislation have run the gamut of issues, but all have either protected or promoted a corporate revenue stream, often at the expense of consumers. For example, ALEC has worked on behalf of:
- Oil companies to undermine climate change proponents;
- Pharmaceutical manufacturers, arguing that states should be banned from importing prescription drugs;
- Telecom firms to block local authorities from offering cheap or free municipally-owned broadband;
- Insurance companies to prevent state insurance commissioners from requiring insurers to meet strengthened accounting and auditing rules;
- Big banks, recommending that seniors be forced to give up their homes via reverse mortgages in order to receive Medicaid;
- The asbestos industry, trying to shut the courthouse door to Americans suffering from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases; and,
- Enron to deregulate the utility industries, which eventually caused the U.S. to lose what the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) estimated as $5 trillion in market value.
The Koch brothers and Koch Industries are all over ALEC. Their Charitable foundations and businesses provide a lot of funding. ExxonMobile is also a huge source of funds. There are several companies representing the interests of Big Pharma. ALEC looks like a who who of corporate America’s worst corporate citizens. The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch put out a Special Report on ALEC’s funding last month.
According to ALEC’s IRS filings, over the past three years it has raised $21,615,465 from corporations, foundations, and other sources, and just over $250,000 in dues paid by state legislators, amounting to slightly more than 1 percent of its income. The gigantic gap between what legislators pay and what ALEC spends is the direct result of the reality that legislators pay a mere $50 a year to be a member, while a corporation can pay up to $25,000 a year or more to be a member of ALEC plus additional fees to be on a task force where corporations get the same right to vote as legislators. They just pay hundreds of times more for that vote.
For example, the foundations controlled by the billionaire Koch brothers gave ALEC over $200,000 in 2009. (The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, which Charles Koch, his wife and kids help run, donated $125,000 to ALEC. His own Charles G. Koch foundation kicked in an additional $75,000.) That $200k is before whatever is the undisclosed amount of membership “dues” paid by Koch Industries, which is run by Charles and David Koch. There is no public disclosure of annual gifts the company gives to take part in the one-stop shopping ALEC conventions provide to meet with legislators from every state about their wish list…
Other right-wing foundations have also supported ALEC, far beyond the “dues” paid by any legislator. For example, the Castle Rock Foundation, which is run by right-wing beer heir Peter Coors, gave $50,000 last year and in prior years. The right-wing John M. Olin foundation has also been a donor to ALEC. Another of the big right-wing foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, has been a funder and, for example, gave ALEC $50,000 in 2009 to fund “budget reform” work. Similarly, right-winger Richard Scaife has given ALEC over half a million dollars the past decade or so, through his Allegheny Foundation. Some of the organizations that support ALEC, like Scaife’s, are also deeply invested in the profits of corporations that sit on ALEC’s board. The Allegheny Foundation has held over $11 million of ALEC board member Altria‘s stock, along with major stock holdings in other ALEC corporate board members like Kraft, Coca Cola, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Exxon.
ALEC is a major voice for climate change denial, responsible for the recent spate of voter disenfranchisment laws, and continually pushes for extreme tort reform. There’s a really good primary on ALEC at People for the American Way. ALEC is the well-funded voice of corporate special interests. Here are two recent examples of state legislature originating from ALEC.
ALEC was influential in crafting and passing a Texas law, dubbed the “Successor Asbestos-Related Liability Fairness Act, that shielded Crown Cork and Seal, a business that in 1966 acquired a company that used asbestos in its products, from lawsuits from the company’s workers. Even though Crown agreed to pay the company’s liabilities, it wanted immunity from paying damages to workers facing asbestos-related diseases. Crown Cork and Seal turned to ALEC to help shape the Texas law, which put an extremely low cap on liability for companies like Crown who acquired companies which committed wrongdoing, known as a “successor immunity” law.” Mark Behrens, an attorney for Shook Hardy, worked as a lobbyist for both ALEC and Crown to encourage allied lawmakers to introduce and pass the bill. The American Association for Justice writes that “this so-called ‘successor immunity’ has all the hallmarks of an ALEC special interest bill. It is plainly designed not with public policy in mind, but rather a specific industry (or in this case, a specific company).” The Texas Supreme Court ultimately found the cap to be an unconstitutional retroactive protection for Crown that inhibited the rights of people to rightfully sue corporations for damages, but similar ALEC-derived laws are still on the books in other states.
In Arizona, an investigative report by NPRfound that ALEC significantly helped one of its clients, the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), influence the state’s new immigration law. The CCA is a for-profit prison company whose “executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market,” and thought that a law which “could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants” to prison would “mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.” As a dues-paying member of ALEC, the CCA was able to write, present and lobby Arizona policymakers for a draconian immigration bill at an ALEC-hosted conference. “Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona’s immigration law,” and many of the bill’s cosponsors later received significant campaign contributions from the CCA. ALEC also helped the CCA by pushing “truth in sentencing” laws that restrict parole eligibility for felons, and consequently increase the number of prisoners.
You name the spurious law, and ALEC is likely behind it. They write laws that push private school vouchers, strip workers of their right to organize, make it more difficult to generate revenues to fill budget shortfalls in states, and undercut healthcare reform efforts.
After the passage of health care reform, ALEC’s top priority has been to challenge the law by encouraging members to introduce bills that would prohibit the law’s insurance mandate. ALEC’s Health and Human Services task force is led by representatives of PhRMA and Johnson & Johnson, and representatives of Bayer and GlaxoSmithKlein sit on ALEC’s board. The group’s model bill, the “Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act,” has been introduced in forty-four states, and ALEC even released a “State Legislators Guide to Repealing ObamaCare” discussing a variety of model legislation including bills to partially privatize Medicaid and SCHIP. The legislative guide utilizes ideas and information from pro-corporate groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the James Madison Institute, the Cato Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Expanding the disproportionate power of corporations in the legislative process is central to ALEC’s goals. ALEC is responsible for some of the worst outcomes in government we’ve seen in decades. It is pure influence peddling. Any legislator that relies on ALEC for services should be subject to immediate recall. ALEC represents what’s wrong with this country today. It is at the heart of single issue, special interest politics that are not in the public’s interest. They are a perversion of the democratic political process.
Mitt Romney is wrong. Corporations are not people. The profit motive is the sole determinant of corporate behavior. No household or family would put profits before everything else nor should any government that purports to represent its people. I suggest finding out as much about how ALEC influences your state legislature as soon as possible. A good place to start is with The Nation‘s series ‘ALEC Exposed’. The first in this series shows the role of the Koch’s in ALEC’s model bills. I’ve pumped this thread up with a lot of juicy links. Please take some time to visit the research of all the nonprofits that have carefully researched this shadowy organization.