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December 3, 2007

Al Sharpton speaks out on race, rights and what bothers him about his critics

Al Sharpton speaks out on race, rights and what bothers him about his critics

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Monday, December 3, 2007

People call me because they know I will come. If nothing else you write, I have never fought a case where they didn’t ask me to come. People have this picture like I’m sitting up in bed at night with a walkie-talkie. ‘You hear anything? Oh, let’s run! It’s Virginia today!’
Image: David Shankbone.

At Thanksgiving dinner David Shankbone told his white middle class family that he was to interview Reverend Al Sharpton that Saturday. The announcement caused an impassioned discussion about the civil rights leader’s work, the problems facing the black community and whether Sharpton helps or hurts his cause. Opinion was divided. “He’s an opportunist.” “He only stirs things up.” “Why do I always see his face when there’s a problem?”

Shankbone went to the National Action Network‘s headquarters in Harlem with this Thanksgiving discussion to inform the conversation. Below is his interview with Al Sharpton on everything from Tawana Brawley, his purported feud with Barack Obama, criticism by influential African Americans such as Clarence Page, his experience running for President, to how he never expected he would see fifty (he is now 53). “People would say to me, ‘Now that I hear you, even if I disagree with you I don’t think you’re as bad as I thought,'” said Sharpton. “I would say, ‘Let me ask you a question: what was “bad as you thought”?’ And they couldn’t say. They don’t know why they think you’re bad, they just know you’re supposed to be bad because the right wing tells them you’re bad.”

Sharpton’s beginnings in the movement

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

David Shankbone: You grew up around so many great American musicians and singers like Mahalia Jackson and James Brown.

Al Sharpton: I grew up in the black church. I started preaching at four as a wonderboy preacher. The church that I grew up in, Washington Temple Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn, was a hot spot for gospel singers. It was probably a mega-church before there were mega-churches. Bishop F.D. Washington, who was the bishop of the church, had about 5,000 members in the late fifties and early sixties. All the gospel greats would come to the church. Because I was the wonderboy preacher, and I had my own little church celebrity, I got to know all the gospel singers. It began my early dealing with the entertainment world, through the gospel singing. In 1964 when the World’s Fair came to New York, Mahalia Jackson had me preach and she sang there that night. Then I did a few other cities with her.

All the gospel greats would come to the church. Because I was the wonderboy preacher, and I had my own little church celebrity, I got to know all the gospel singers.
Mahalia Jackson in 1962.

DS: What was that like touring with Mahalia Jackson?

AS: It was fascinating to me. Here I am a little kid, I’m not even ten years old, and Mahalia Jackson was arguably the preeminent gospel artist of that time. It was quite a charge to me. A lot of times now I land into LaGuardia Airport and you see the circular, which was the New York pavilion of the World’s Fair, and that’s where I preached when I was nine years old. I think about that a lot flying in, that night with Mahalia Jackson. Now that’s wow, 47-years ago.

DS: Did you keep in touch with her throughout her life? Did she have a presence in yours?

AS: Not as closely as James Brown. We would run into each other. She died when I was still very much in my teens. Madame Ernestine Washington, who was the first lady of the church I grew up in, she was a gospel singer. I knew a lot of the gospel greats. James Brown and I got close in my teen years. What happened was when I was around 12 or 13, Martin Luther King had come to the church and I got totally mesmerized by Adam Clayton Powell, who was the Congressman in Harlem and a preacher, so I wanted to get involved politically. The church that I was in was Pentecostal; I’m now Baptist. But it was Pentecostal, and it wasn’t that involved in social justice, although Bishop Washington was. Bishop Washington said he didn’t want me to get involved with the more militant groups, because at that time you had the Black Panthers and a lot of others. So he brought me to Reverend William Jones, who was head of Operation Breadbasket, SCLC, in New York, who later became my pastor after Bishop Washington died. Reverend Jones converted me Baptist from Pentecostal. They knew who I was because of my preaching as a little boy. I became the youth director in New York of SCLC Operation Breadbasket. King had just gotten killed; this is 1969 and he had gotten killed the year before. I met King, but I didn’t know him. I was 12, 13 years old. But I got to know Dr. Abernathy, who succeeded him—

DS: Ralph Abernathy?

AS: Ralph Abernathy. The Director nationally of Operation Breadbasket was Jesse Jackson, who was in his late twenties, early thirties. It was interesting, because Jesse Jackson’s age and my age gap was the same as his and King’s. Jackson at that time had a big afro and a medallion. He became a hero to me. Adam Clayton Powell, who had been my hero, had retired and moved so I became a protégé of Reverend Jackson. We became close.

James Brown: a father to Sharpton

What I do functionally is what Dr. King, Reverend Jackson and the movement are all about; but I learned manhood from James Brown. I always say that James Brown taught me how to be a man.
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Are you still close to Reverend Jackson?

AS: Yeah, we talk. In 1971, when Jackson left SCLC over whatever their problems were with each other—that’s when he left to form Operation Push—I also left the SCLC in protest because I was close to Reverend Jackson. I took my youth division with me and formed National Youth Movement, which was my organization. Jesse didn’t have an organization here in New York. When I formed it, maybe about a year, six months later, a young guy joined the organization from Georgia — he would come up here thinking about going to college — named Teddy. Teddy’s father was James Brown. Teddy got killed in a car accident in upstate New York. He and I were the same age, sixteen. James Brown came to New York and the disc jockeys here told him about this young preacher his son liked. He decided he’d do a memorial concert for his son for my youth group. He talked to me, he liked me, and of course this was, like, The Icon. He became like the father I didn’t have after my parents separated, and I became like Teddy, his ambitious young son. He had other kids, but they were not as old as Teddy and they didn’t have the ambition, so we started a father-son relationship.

DS: How did James Brown’s death affect you?

AS: Oh, I don’t think anything has affected me more.

DS: He was such an icon, but then to also have had this deeply personal relationship must have had an extraordinary impact on you.

AS: James Brown was the father I never had. I traveled with him; he financed my youth group. I met my wife — we’re no longer together — when she was his background singer. He put my kids in private school. I styled my hair after him; he actually styled my hair after his. What I do functionally is what Dr. King, Reverend Jackson and the movement are all about; but I learned manhood from James Brown. I always say that James Brown taught me how to be a man.

DS: What was one lesson that he taught you?

AS: Determination. Don’t be afraid to listen to your inner ear. James Brown changed music; he changed the beat of music. I learned from him to trust your inner ear, go by your own beat. I remember in the 1970’s when disco became popular he refused to water down his music, and it ended up his music became the basis of funk and rap and all that. I watched him deal with adversity and go to jail. When he was in jail I went and saw him every month, and I went and preached for him. He never gave up, he was very determined. He taught me how to take adversity and use it to your advantage.

James Brown.

DS: There is so much anger at injustice, and that anger can fell a person’s ability to right wrongs, or can steer them down a bad path. You have been able to take your anger and use it productively. When you come across a young person who is angry at the world around them, what kind of advice do you give them?

AS: The challenge is to learn that your anger can fuel you in achieving things that can eradicate what you’re angry about; or your anger can consume and defeat you. I’m known for fighting racial bias, police misconduct, and things against poor people. I can either be strategic to say this is Plan A, B and C to get racial profiling off, or hate crime laws passed, or close the Navy base in Vieques, and I’m going to use my anger, my real, heartfelt anger to fuel me to get up at five o’clock in the morning to do Plan A, B and C; or I can be someone so angry that I never get to a strategy, I never get to Plan A, B and C. But then the police are not challenged, and the hate crime laws are not written, and Vieques is still open. So the question one has to ask one’s self—I tell young people all the time, and most of the National Action Network leadership in our chapters are younger than me—you have to make a choice at some point in your life: are you going to do something about what angers you, or do you want to just be angry? Because I learned a long time ago that those in power don’t care that you’re angry, they care if you use that anger to do something about it. You have a choice. I used to like boxing. My father was a boxer and I used to watching boxing matches all the time. If you go into the ring just mad you’ll get knocked out. Or you can go into the ring and have training, and have a fight plan, and use your natural anger to fuel your fight plan; it’s according to what you want to be. But the one with the fight plan that uses his anger to drive the fight plan is the one who ends up champion. The one without one just ends up angry and laying knocked out. It’s your choice. I’m not saying I came to that out of brilliance; I came to that out of trial and error. I used to be angry with no plan. Just recklessly angry.

DS: What would you do?

AS: Just mad, just react. And achieve nothing. You’ve got to say that life is about stated goals, benchmarks, and what you want to achieve at the end of life. Because everybody comes to an end. What was the purpose of your life and what did you achieve? So if my goal was to build a social justice network, and to change things, at the end of life in the social justice arena, did I do that? It won’t matter if I was angry or happy, it will matter if I have achieved that. That’s what I learned from James Brown. You got to decide what your purpose is, not others. Much of the media criticism of me assumes their goals and the impose them on me. Well, those might not be my goals. So they will say, “Well, Sharpton has not won a political office.” But that might not be my goal! Maybe I ran for political office to change the debate, or to raise the social justice question.

DS: Which you see today. Dennis Kucinich or Tom Tancredo, they’re not there because they think they are going to win; they are trying to frame the issues.

AS: Right. And if they are there to frame the issue, then they are successful. One of the things I learned from James Brown is don’t let others determine your success. Your success is based upon your goals, not the goals they impose upon you.

Criticism: Sharpton is always there

DS: A lot of the criticism that is lodged at you is that you always seem to pop up around hot button issues, or where there is some race issue. My interview with you came up during my Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and I’d like that dinner to inform our discussion because it illustrated many of the typical perspectives about you. My brother-in-law made that point, that there you always are around the controversial race issue. I responded with, “Well, what was he saying? Was he wrong about what he said? Why do we focus on Sharpton and not the issue he is talking about?”

AS: Your answer is right, but let me give you something even deeper than that. If you asked the average critic, “Where is he?” Jena, Imus, whatever. You know what they won’t recognize? Not only was I there, but I created it into being an issue. There was no Jena until we went into Jena. There was nobody else fighting Imus. The misconception is these these issues got hot and then I came in; no, I came in and I made them hot. There was nobody in Jena; nobody heard of Jena until we went down there. Nobody ever questioned Imus but us, which is why Imus came to our show. The reason why this becomes important is because not only are you right, ‘Do you disagree with him,’ but do you begrudge him being in front of an issue that he helped create? So who is supposed to be in front of it? I create an issue and then somebody else is supposed to lead it? Last Friday we had a huge 50,000 person march in Washington against the Justice Department . We went out there organizing with our chapters, got 150 buses from around the country paid for. Who is supposed to lead the march? You got people saying, “There he is leading the march.” Well, he organized it. Who is supposed to lead the march? And the thing that gets me is, you get blamed for stuff you did not do. A lot of people think I led the Duke case. I never went to Duke; I never went to North Carolina. Never ever. They asked me to come, but I said unless I talk to the victim I’m not going. So you get criticized for what you do organize and lead, and you get criticized for stuff you had nothing to do with, just because people assume you were there. And it’s crazy!

Nadine Strossen
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Nadine Strossen, the President of the ACLU, brought up in our interview that their critics intentionally distort their work to serve their own purposes. For instance, many people believe the ACLU works to keep religion out of the school, yet they have consistently fought for the right for religion to be in schools. She debated Falwell and Robertson on these issues, and they will still say that the ACLU is fighting to remove God from the public sphere.

AS: She’s right! That’s not their position!

DS: When you come across people who intentionally misinform the debate in order to scuttle your goals, what do you do?

AS: The only thing you can do is straighten the record out, but you come to expect it. The advantage I have is that I grew up in the movement and watched people from Reverend Jackson to James Brown. James Brown as the dominant father in my life; Jackson as the dominant teacher, who had to deal with the same misconceptions and controversies. When it came my time, I almost expected it because that is what they are going to do, which is to try and change the debate. What you learn is you don’t let them change the premise. Because if you start with the wrong premise, you arrive at the wrong conclusion. I’ll give you an example. A guy says to me the other day in an airport, “I admire you, but I’d like to see you on more than civil rights issues.” I said, “Let me ask you a question: what do I do?” He said, “Well, you lead a civil rights organization.” So what am I supposed to do? That’s like getting on a plane and telling the pilot I’d like to see you do more than fly the plane. That’s what I do—I’m a civil rights leader! What is a civil rights leader supposed to do?

DS: That’s the same response Ingrid Newkirk gave in an interview when I told her people say she cares more about fighting for animals than for humans. She responded that’s what PETA does: give a voice to those who do not have one. She said that criticism is like telling a homeless shelter they care more about the homeless than people who live in mansions.

AS: That’s exactly right! I tell staff here and all the other cities where we have offices, don’t complain when people come in here with problems because that’s what you do. That’s like a nurse saying, “Why do sick people come here?” Because you work in a doctor’s office! Why do people who are in trouble go to a lawyer’s office? Because that’s what lawyers do. That’s what I do: civil rights. So in many ways, what they consider criticism is complimenting my job. An activist’s job is to make public civil rights issues until there can be a climate for change. So when people get angry at me for raising these issues and making them public, well, that’s my job! That’s what I’m supposed to do. If I could not get the public’s attention on an issue, then I’m not a good activist.

Tawana Brawley to Megan Williams

DS: Are you tired of hearing Tawana Brawley always paired with your name?

AS: No. You know what happens? It has been so long—twenty years—that when a lot of people back up on that, others realize how ludicrous it is. They say, “Wait a minute, you have to go back twenty years to criticize him? And He believed in a girl that you don’t believe in?” So, twenty years later now and the same thing happened to Megan Williams in West Virginia. Was that a hoax? When you look at the span of my career, from Howard Beach before Brawley to Sean Bell now, if all you can do is go to one case twenty years ago, then most people would say that is a little shaky. I mean, come on. Because if I was a hoaxster, then why haven’t we seen other hoaxes in twenty years? And why didn’t the jury say they thought it was a hoax? The jury said they didn’t believe Pagones should have been labeled, the same jury that hit us with defamation. That jury said there was no conspiracy to lie, which is why they only awarded him $65,000 from me. If they thought it was a hoax, I would have been indicted for conspiracy and I would have been charged with a whole lot more money. In many ways, I learn to just sit back and laugh, because if you have to go back to 1987 in 2007, that means I have a pretty good record.
Cquote1.svg I disagreed with the grand jury on Brawley. I believed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Grand jury said there wasn’t. Okay, fine. Do I have a right to disagree with the grand jury? Many Americans believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. A jury said he wasn’t. So I have as much right to question a jury as they do. Cquote2.svg

—Al Sharpton on Tawana Brawley.

DS: How would 2007 Al Sharpton have handled the Tawana Brawley case differently than 1987 Al Sharpton?

AS: I probably wouldn’t have made it as personal in terms of personal attacks on the Attorney General, but I would still have fought the case. I would have done the same case, I would have stood up the same way, and I do it the same way now. When we are approached—phone rings every day here with cases—we are not the investigator. We are there to make sure there is a fair investigation. And I would have done the same thing then I do now. Not long ago a writer said to me, “How can you believe a girl is apprehended by four white men with the N-word written on her and all of that?” I told him, “Let me tell you a story I heard that sounds even worse. I heard of a guy who was grabbed and brought to a police station and they stuck a pole up his behind, and no cop would stop them and turn them in.” He said, “That’s ludicrous!” And I said, “That’s Abner Louima, and it happened!” I fought that case, and those cops went to jail. So in my world, who decides what the most bizarre story in the world is? We hear these every day! He says, “I never thought about it like that.” Megan Williams right now is Tawana Brawley. What are we talking about? I’ll give you another example. Five young black kids were arrested and charged for raping a white female in Central Park. I defended them. Thirteen years later we find out that they did not do it. The DNA cleared them. One of them works for us now. So how do you know? Only by continuing to fight for what you believe in.

DS: You are saying that when you become involved you are fighting to ensure that there is a fair investigation into whatever has happened, and that sometimes you are paired with the fact that not everything turns out in favor of the person being investigated?

AS: That’s exactly right. You get the downside, like the Brawley jury didn’t believe her. I’ll give you one worse. Amadou Diallou was killed, forty-one bullets. The jury said they weren’t guilty. He’s still dead. So on paper was I wrong about Amadou Diallo? He’s dead, forty-one bullets killed him, but the jury said that those cops were right, so when do we decide? My comeback always is: I disagreed with the grand jury on Brawley. I believed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Grand jury said there wasn’t. Okay, fine. Do I have a right to disagree with the grand jury? Many Americans believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. A jury said he wasn’t. So I have as much right to question a jury as they do. Does it make somebody a racist? No! They just disagreed with the jury. So did I. I happened to not believe a fifteen year old girl could have made all that up and guess the names of the people who admitted they were together. I just don’t believe that. Now, what happened? I don’t know. But I don’t believe that. So, we’ll just disagree.

Sharpton and the African-American media

DS: Earl Ofari Hutchinson recently wrote a relatively laudatory column about you in The Huffington Post. In it he said, “When Sharpton toppled Jesse Jackson from the top spot as black America’s main man, the notoriety, and the hostility, that that title carries with it, insured that he’d take the heat for whatever went right or wrong when blacks took to the streets in protest.” What do you think happened to Jesse Jackson’s place in the black community? Hutchison is a prominent black man saying you toppled Jackson.

AS: Well, that’s a hard thing for me to comment on. When I was growing up Reverend Jackson was a hero to me and a mentor. I’d rather not get into that. I’ll let Earl and others give their opinions. I’ll stay out of that. That’s difficult for me to answer.
Cquote1.svg The main thing [black columnists] write about is criticism of black leaders. If you read their columns you understand what their job is. ‘White leadership is never at fault. Government is never at fault. It’s black leaders.'” Cquote2.svg

—Al Sharpton

DS: Clarence Page again in reference to this wrote, “‘gangsta‘ culture punishes those who don’t ‘Stop Snitching,’ to quote a popular inner-city T-shirt slogan, even when the victims are innocent neighbors. A lot of us black Americans would like to take back our streets. We could use a little more help from our leaders.”

AS: We could use a little more help from Clarence Page, again. When I had the campaign against these lyrics—I had the “It’s Not Snitching, It’s Saving” campaign—Clarence was totally silent. We’ve taken that head on, and had rappers attack us. David Banner said “Al Sharpton can suck my so-and-so.” Jay-Z has a record out, and he’s a friend of mine! He says, “Don’t tell me Al Sharpton not to say ‘bitch‘!” They don’t attack Clarence Page they attack me because I’m attacking them. Just look at the rappers attacking me. So somebody should ask Clarence Page why they are attacking me if I’m not out there fighting them.

DS: You are saying that black columnists, whether it be Clarence Page or Juan Williams, who seem to have made their names by attacking a lot of the work done at the grass roots. How can you change that?

AS: I don’t think you can. That’s their role. If you go back to the sixties it was Carl Rowan who used to attack Martin Luther King. You have blacks who understand that one of the ways to get a job in the mainstream media is to attack black leaders.

DS: Such as Juan Williams?

AS: Oh, Juan Williams who works at Fox? Juan Williams works for Rupert Murdoch and wants to ask me about accountability? I mean, really. He works for Rupert Murdoch and wants to ask me about accountability. I think he was mad because a Republican donated some money to the National Action Network. And you work for Rupert Murdoch. Because we are on The Word Network we should have gone to a rally for The Word Network. It’s ridiculous. Again, what do they do? The main thing they write about is criticism of black leaders. If you read their columns you understand what their job is. “White leadership is never at fault. Government is never at fault. It’s black leaders.” What’s ironic is the ones they do praise—Bill Cosby does my radio show maybe once a month. Real close with me. They praise Cosby, but never talk about the fact that Cosby and I work together on these very issues. And Cosby supports what I do. How do they reconcile that? Because they understand that part of their compact with the right wing is that they’ll beat up on Al Sharpton, or Jackson, or whoever, because they are black.

Why the need for an Al Sharpton?

DS: At Thanksgiving we were talking about the different voices for different communities, and I said that there is no Latino “Al Sharpton”—the Cubans used to have Jorge Mas Canosa, but nobody has taken his place—nor is there an Asian “Al Sharpton”. With the black community it seems like Americans are always looking for the voice. Do you think that your visibility has been externally imposed?

AS: No, I disagree with that. I’m glad you had that discussion. Do you know why I disagree with you? In the Latino community you don’t have an Al Sharpton, you have La Raza. Every community does have an organization or institution. So number one, that’s not true. Second, in the black community—

DS: But there’s no one voice. It seems like the others never have a singular voice.

AS: Yeah, but that one voice is always the head of some group. Believe me, if I could not prove that we could deliver the bodies to these protests, the press wouldn’t cover me. The only reason the press covers me is we create the issue. The press ignored Jena until we put 40,000 people down there. So if we have the organizational muscle, they aren’t doing me a favor. The white media didn’t create me, they covered me. When I went to Howard Beach, there were hundreds out there and they threw bananas at us and all. The press didn’t contact me and say, “We’ll tell you what, Sharpton, you go out there and we’ll cover you.” No! I created the drama like King did in Selma, Alabama. So what they are really saying is, “Let’s be selective because if we don’t like Sharpton let’s not cover Sharpton because we want somebody else.” Usually even the black critics that criticize charismatic leadership are blacks without charisma who can’t do it themselves. We’ve always had charismatic leadership, whether it was Mandela in South Africa or King in the south. The question is what you use the charismatic leadership for; what’s wrong with that?

DS: Shane Johnson is an African-American blogger who was protesting your Washington, D.C. Department of Justice march. Clarence Page, who is one of your critics within the African-American community, wrote a column about it. He wrote, “Why do we black folks get so much more agitated about occasional white-on-black insults than about the black-on-black assaults that constantly terrorize certain neighborhoods?”

AS: My answer is why doesn’t Clarence Page do something about it when we everyday deal with that. That is dealt with every day and every way. Not only have we dealt with black on black assaults, not only do we do crime rallies, not only do we denounce it, we’ve even been the ones to go as far as to march on black rappers about the N-word, misogyny and violence to women that a lot of them glorify. Clarence Page and them don’t do that, we do. My critics were totally silent when we were marching on the rappers, the records companies and all of that this summer. But when I do a Justice march, they criticize. Well, where were they when we were marching on some of these rappers who glorify violence? That’s why they have no credibility in our community. Because we are marching on the record companies that glorify violence; we are marching on black on black violence. They are not. They wait for us to do an issue that is race-based, and act like that’s all we did. We spent half this year fighting lyrics in records, the glorification of violence, drugs in our community. I’m the one who painted the crackhouses, saying get them out of our community. Where was Clarence and them then?

DS: Is getting your message out that you do more than just race-based issues a challenge you have difficulty overcoming? That’s all that people hear and see you do.

AS: Well, that’s one of the challenges, but part of the problem is guys who are critics won’t tell the truth. If you were to ask them, they know we’ve marched against record companies. They won’t cover them, because they know—particularly a lot of black columnists—because that’s the way they can be heard: to be against whoever is out there. They did it to Jesse before me, and they did it to King before him. You know, one of the ways you can get covered if you are black in the mainstream media is to attack the guy that is up front. Make him the boogeyman. I accepted that going in.

Al Sharpton and Presidential Politics

DS: Recently a poll came out that showed sixty-one percent of the black Americans surveyed said values between poor and middle-class blacks are moving too far apart to be viewed as a common black experience. Only 41 percent expressed that view in a similar 1986 poll. Do you think the black experience is no longer defined by race, but by socio-economic status?

But do you know what nobody ever talks about? I’m the only black who ran for President who had to run against another black: Carol Mosley Braun [above]. Jesse never had to face a black; Shirley [Chisholm] never had to face a black. Obama hasn’t had to face a black. The real question is: why did Sharpton get so many more votes than Carol Mosley-Braun, who on paper was a much better candidate?

AS: No, I think it was always divided on socio-economic status. I think that there is a growing socio-economic difference that brings the contrast more to light, but that all comes together around the question of civil rights. There’s no difference. There’s any number of polls that show that most blacks, no matter what their class, say that there is still bias in America. Whether you are a kid in Jena from a poor family, or a college professor at Columbia with nooses hanging on your door, you still have a race problem. You may have a difference in views about values, but both of you still feel there is bias at whatever class level you are at. That is why they were shocked when I ran for President and the black elite—the Bob Johnsons who own BET and Earl Grey—were some of the biggest contributors to my campaign. Because they said we still have to have somebody out there fighting race. Let me give you the schizophrenia of the political animal. When I ran for President, I won every black district in Washington D.C. I then won the black vote in South Carolina, when I never was from the south. But do you know what nobody ever talks about? I’m the only black who ran for President who had to run against another black: Carol Mosley Braun. Jesse never had to face a black; Shirley [Chisholm] never had to face a black. Obama hasn’t had to face a black. The real question is: why did Sharpton get so many more votes than Carol Mosley Braun, who on paper was a much better candidate? Former U.S. Senator, former ambassador, and she never got anywhere near my vote. It shows that blacks vote based on who they think supports their interests. Now you are talking about Obama has to fight Hillary for the black vote; I had to fight Carol Mosley Braun for the black vote, and beat her everywhere. I think that is the analysis they don’t want to give. They’ll say Sharpton didn’t get the votes that Jesse got, but they never mention there was a black woman—the only black woman who ever served in the U.S. Senate—running against Sharpton! They forget that now.

DS: What did you learn about national politics from your Presidential run?

AS: I’ll tell you, I will be completely candid with you. I learned these guys are not that smart. I expected them to be a lot smarter, a lot more difficult to debate, and I learned a lot of them only have the value system of win, win, win. They don’t believe in anything. Obviously I ran to put forth a political position and to make visible a constituency. And obviously many of them didn’t; but I thought they had some core beliefs. Most of them didn’t have core beliefs.

DS: Is there one moment that sticks out in your mind?

AS: Probably, but let me get back to that. I also learned that once most Americans and I talked, that we didn’t disagree that much. When I was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire—totally white communities—that the more we talked not only did they get more comfortable with me, I got more comfortable with them. Because people really don’t disagree on fundamentals as much as the disagree on the stuff we’ve been programmed to disagree on with each other.

DS: The way it’s presented in the media.

AS: Correct. People would say to me, “Now that I hear you, even if I disagree with you I don’t think you’re as bad as I thought.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: what was ‘bad as you thought’?” And they couldn’t say. They don’t know why they think you’re bad, they just know you’re supposed to be bad because the right wing tells them you’re bad.

DS: It seems the media—both liberal and conservative—has to follow a narrative.

AS: Exactly. So even my worse criticism—Brawley—tell me what is wrong with a civil rights leader believing a 15 year old girl who came to him. I didn’t tell her the story, she told me. What was wrong about that? “I guess nothing. Did you know she was lying?” A jury didn’t know. She said that I didn’t know what her story was. So in your worse scenario, the lack of discourse is what separates most Americans. I learned that more than anything in the campaign. When I would meet with a lot of the handlers and DNC officials about the campaign, and everything was geared toward polling and focus groups, and not core beliefs, that’s when I got this thing that took me, as one who is a true believer—I mean, I’ve been prosecuted, stabbed, 9 days in jail in Vieques for what I believe, jail twenty other times—at the end of the day people have to say I believe in what I do. I don’t know if there are a lot of people in national politics that have core beliefs that they would go to jail for, or even be willing to die for. I just don’t feel that way about those people. Ultimately, I only respect people who are willing to put it all on the line.

DS: Was there a moment that sticks out in your mind during the campaign with anyone in particular?

AS: Not really.

DS: What about during the debates?

AS: You could see people change. Remember when I ran in 2004, and when the debates started in 2003, most of the people on the stage, including Kerry and Edwards, were pro-war. I was the first one—even before Dean—who came out against it. Then Dean came out and joined the race later. I saw them go from, “We got to fight terrorism, we got to go to Iraq,” almost to my position in a matter of four or five months, which I considered questionable. It also validated why you need public pressure. I remember I went to the first huge anti-war march in Washington, the A.N.S.W.E.R. march. I was the first Presidential candidate that would go.

On Barack Obama

DS: Who are you supporting for President?

AS: No one yet. The question is, who is going to support a strong social justice agenda? When I sit and look at the Democratic debates, with all these hangmen nooses, and all these hate crimes, and they don’t even bring it up, how can I support them when they’re not supporting us? If I was on that stage it would be on the agenda.

DS: The Post reported back in April that you have a conflict with Obama. What do you think is behind that story?

AS: I think it’s trying to get a double shot. Hurt him with people that like me; hurt me with people that like him. Say that Sharpton has a problem with him so the Obama people say, “Oh, why is Al messing with Obama?” The people that are in the debates, where he has to contest with Hillary, “Oh, you have a problem with Al Sharpton.” I don’t have a problem with Obama. I talk to Obama, I talk to Hillary, I talk to John Edwards. I have a problem that none of them are forcefully raising the social justice agenda. Why? That’s what I do. I’m a social justice leader. That’s what I do. And I think if you went to a union leader, he’d say, “I like their issues on this, but what about labor?” and I think if you went to a woman leader, “What about gender divided?” Why do people expect me not to be concerned about civil rights? That’s what I do.

DS: Why do you think Obama is not dominating the black vote?

AS: I don’t know. I think one, they don’t know him as well. They are just learning him. I think he’ll do alright, but I think the strategic mistake his handlers made—I don’t think it was him—is they sold him as beyond race. The antithesis to the civil rights guys. The problem with that is the blacks say, “Okay, you aren’t standing up for us, then fine.” So you can’t come back later and say he’s the black candidate when he said no he’s not. A lady at The New York Times called to do a story and I made her change the whole thing. She said, “I want to do a story on Obama and the civil rights generation and the conflict.” I said, “You’ve got a problem. Obama and I are the same generation. We are only six years apart. How do you count generations?” She said she hadn’t thought about that. You could do that with Jesse, but Obama is 46 and I’m 53; that’s not a different generation. Why don’t you talk about that every generation has had blacks on the inside and blacks on the outside. Ed Brooke was in the Senate like Obama when King was alive. Ed Brooke was elected and sitting in the Senate when King was alive, and he was a Republican from Massachusetts. Then we had Carol Mosley-Braun, then we had Obama. Ron Brown was chairman of the party when Jesse Jackson was the outsider. This new thing is that you guys don’t do research. There’s always been blacks inside the system and blacks outside. That’s not generational, that’s functional.

The Iraq War

DS: Do you think there should be conscription?

AS: I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s debatable to me.

DS: Do you consider our military a volunteer army?

AS: Yeah. I think that a volunteer army—I’m against drafts, even when Charlie Rangel came out with it. Even understanding the reasoning, to make rich as well as poor go, I just think the rich will find a way to get around it and there will still be a disproportionate amount of poor.

DS: Which you saw in Vietnam, and many national leaders now found ways not to go.

AS: Exactly right. I was in high school at the time of the Vietnam War, there was a draft, and the rich kids didn’t go. They found a way around it.

DS: How has the war affected you?

AS: I think it has affected me in that I have seen and actually preached at soldiers’ funerals. I’ve seen the families suffer for absolutely no reason. There never was Weapons of Mass Destruction, there never was eminent danger, so I have seen it up close and personal in terms of families losing their sons. I’ve also seen resources that we could have used to provide training and jobs in this country just sent over there arbitrarily. I also watched when Katrina happened the way people who were relocated around the country couldn’t vote at home, but Iraqis could vote from America in the elections in Iraq. I think it brought out the glaring contradictions of American democracy as practiced by people like the Bush administration.

DS: Are you optimistic for the future?

AS: Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind as I sit here today that the world will be better, America will be better, and that those like us—no matter how controversial—will be redeemed in history. There is no doubt in my mind. Whether we live to see it physically or not, I have no doubt in my mind.

Sharpton as a symbol

DS: I interviewed documentary filmmaker Kira Nerusskaya, who is one of the leading voices in the fat acceptance movement. She is what she calls a “BBW”. A Big Beautiful Woman. Your name came up in that interview and she called you “Reverend 9-1-1” and mentioned that fat people don’t have their own “Al Sharpton”, someone they can turn to when they are being hassled at work because they are a drain on their insurance, or when fat people are discriminated against or harassed. When you hear that you have become a symbol that transcends your community, what do you think?

AS: I thought you were going to say she is disappointed that I’m not as fat as I used to be. On one level I think it is flattering. It is something you never think about when you jump into this. Again, I joined the movement way before I was old enough to understand all of that—

DS: When you were ten, when you were preaching—

AS: Yeah, exactly. People say now I’m living by ambition or whatever else they accuse me of, but what was I living by when I was ten years old? Twelve years old when I joined Breadbasket. It’s also frightening because it makes you all the more a target for every critic. There’s not a month that goes by that we don’t have a serious death threat. Every criminal justice guy is trying to topple you. So you become a target as much as it is flattering, so I always remember the upside and the downside of it.

DS: It’s interesting that you have become that to other people.

AS: It is, but I’ll tell you what else is interesting that she said—and I don’t know if she intended to say it this way or not—when she said I’m “Reverend 9-1-1”. What a lot of people don’t understand, particularly in the white community, is I’m projected as an ambulance chaser. But I’m more the ambulance. People call me because they know I will come. If nothing else you write, I have never fought a case where they didn’t ask me to come. People have this picture like I’m sitting up in bed at night with a walkie-talkie. “You hear anything? Oh, let’s run! It’s Virginia today!” People call us. Jena all the way to Florida all the way to Jasper, Texas, all the way to Sean Bell. Every victim calls us. On my syndicated radio show now if we get a case I make the victim get on and say, “Now, you asked me to get involved in this?” That’s what I did with Jena. Now nobody remembers because nobody knew what Jena was then. We respond to a person coming in, which is why it’s absurd when black conservatives, “Who put Sharpton in charge?” The victim! Who put me in charge of Jena? The people involved with Jena asked me to come. What gives you the right to tell people not to have who they want to represent them. Could you imagine? I’m leading the march on Jena, asked to come in by the parents of the kid in jail, and they’re going to sit on MSNBC that night and ask, “Well, why is Al Sharpton leading it?” Because the parents of the kid asked me to lead it! Duh! So at least let’s be straight-up about it.

DS: Do you think the criticism is more because you are successful for bringing attention to it?

AS: If I was not able to bring public attention, they would care less. And let’s face it: some of them are very cynical and know they can get a lot of play criticizing me. I was talking about it at the rally this morning—we have rallies here every Saturday. You have one guy, I can’t think of his name, a sportswriter from Kansas City who made a career out of criticizing me about Imus. He did every talk show. “Sharpton’s wrong!” Nobody ever said, “Wait a minute, you a sportswriter, what are you speaking for? What are you talking about it?” It’s ludicrous.

I hate to admit it. I always thought I would probably get killed before now. After I got stabbed in 1991 I was sure that if I got to forty, I would never make it to fifty. Now I’m fifty-three, which is probably why I work as hard as I do.
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Why do you think that happens?

AS: Because they know that there is a market for it. They know they can get air time for it.

DS: Did you ever do a DNA test to see if you were related to Strom Thurmond?

AS: No, I just accepted the documents; I never did the DNA.

DS: Do you keep in contact with Essie Mae Washington-Williams?

AS: I only met her one time. Because again, I don’t know that we are related. I know that my great-grandfather was a slave of the Thurmonds, I don’t know that there was any blood. When they came and told me I went down to South Carolina to Edgefield, and visited the cemetery. The cemetery at the First Baptist Church of Edgefield is all Sharptons—of course the white Sharptons—and Thurmonds. While I was there, a man came up and said, “You know, the plantation that your great-grandfather worked on is still intact. A doctor bought it and he didn’t change anything. He told me if you’d like to see it we can go over there.” It’s on Sharpton Road in Edgefield. [Sharpton shows Shankbone the photos of him at the plantation]. I look at it to remind me of how far we’ve come. [Sharpton shows Shankbone photos of civil rights leaders and his family]. This is the last time James Brown was on stage at the Apollo, to do my fiftieth birthday in 2004.

DS: Did you ever think you’d reach fifty?

AS: No. I hate to admit it. I always thought I would probably get killed before now. After I got stabbed in 1991 I was sure that if I got to forty, I would never make it to fifty. Now I’m fifty-three, which is probably why I work as hard as I do. I work 17, 18 hour days. Rachel [Noerdlinger, his assistant] will tell you 20, but she’s lying because she feels I overwork. I feel every day I live is a day I never expected to live, so I try to do everything I can. I think that part of the problem with a lot of civil rights leaders is that this is the first generation that actually lived to be gray. What do gray civil rights leaders do? Because in the era before us, they were all dead by now.

DS: Who are some up-and-coming civil rights leaders under thirty?

AS: Some are in my organization. You’ve got Tamika Mallory, who heads the Decency Initiative here in New York. You’ve got Mark Coleman in Atlanta. You have Jerry Moffet in Phoenix. I could name you fifteen to twenty in various degrees who have a lot of potential. Who will become national? I have no idea. I tend to work with all of them. We have thirty-three chapters, offices in seven cities, and 90% of them are under forty years old. Most of the people who marched with us in Jena and Washington were under forty years old. There’s a resurgence of activism among young people, and I think a lot of it is they went through this era of blacks making it as CEOs and blacks making it in management, and now that era is over. Richard Parsons is gone soon; Obama is not dominating the black vote. So a lot of these people are saying that it’s not happening. They are going back to that we have to struggle as a unit.

DS: At Thanksgiving my brother-in-law’s brother made the point that we in white America don’t remember history, and that when we come across people who do remember history and we are always shocked. “Why don’t you get over it and move on?” But that doesn’t take into account that there is a long history of racial problems that have set people behind in the race by half a mile, and suddenly it’s supposed to be, “You’re equal, it’s a fair race now.”

AS: “Get over it!” Yeah. People are set back half a mile because they were given a disadvantage, not because they fell a half a mile. Then you tell us to “catch up” and forget that the race was unfair in the beginning. You’re right.

DS: One sees this problem with history with the Christian Zionists in the right wing. They have an entirely different perspective on history. They don’t view Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—who were secular—as our founding fathers. When they talk about America’s founding fathers they mean Cotton Mather and the Puritans.

AS: I think you have to be determined to not allow people to dismiss history. You have to use every forum to put history into perspective. People have a reason they want you to forget history, because history does not back up their point. One of the things Martin Luther King III and I talked about is that his father died one of the most controversial figures in the history of America, but you would think now forty years later he was revered by white America. He wasn’t! The New York Times would write editorials about him telling him to keep his nose out of the Vietnam business. “Who do you think you are?” When he died—that’s when I joined the movement—we had to fight to get him a national holiday. But today you read stories that guys like us aren’t Dr. King. Well, in Dr. King’s time they didn’t have him as Dr. King, but that’s the benefit of distorting history. If you can erase history, erase why there are racial gaps across the board—health care, education, income—if you can erase how that all started, then you can make guys like me look extreme. But if you look at history and how we got here, we’re really very reasonable to say some of the things we have said.

DS: Then the focus is on gangsta culture and instead of looking at how that came about, it is talked about as if it is a phenomenon that just happened?

AS: Nobody is looking at that, and the fact that if you didn’t have gangsta culture, we’d still be in the back of the bus. Should we have stronger family ties? Of course. Should we stress education? Of course! Should we stress responsibility? Of course! But people who had self-contained families that were very responsible still had to sit in the back of the bus and couldn’t check into a hotel. Let’s not act like gangsta is what caused racial inequity in our society. It’s like saying you’ve got cancer, but you’ve also got a head cold, so the reason you’ve got cancer is you’ve got a head cold. No, you have cancer and a head cold. You take Tylenol for the head cold, but you’ve still got to deal with the cancer. What they are trying to act like is taking head cold medicine is going to solve cancer. It’s a bunch of crap! If every black in America had strongly family ties, and there were no out-of-wedlock births, which I strongly advocate and preach, it still wouldn’t solve the racial inequality in the social fabric. Let’s be honest about that.

Blacks and whites and talking about race

DS: At the end of the Thanksgiving discussion, I said that if a black person was sitting at the table with us, we would never have had the entire conversation. We talked about that. Do you think there is a nervousness amongst the races to engage each other?

AS: A lot of the nervousness is that white America is uncomfortable with having to deal with the guilt and history of racism, and they certainly don’t want to admit it is still here, and black America in large part has for so long has had to try and act like it’s not there to get along. It’s almost like our silence will get us access so that we don’t offend you. And those of us that are offensive have to then carry the burden of trying to push the envelope. That’s why Bill Tatum, who publishes the Amsterdam News, said if we didn’t have a guy like Al Sharpton we’d have to invent one. Because every generation has to have somebody who pushes the envelope. We just do.

DS: I think it was Lani Guinier who used to talk about the problem is the races too afraid to talk to each other about race.

AS: I think Lani Guinier did talk about that. You have to not only have blacks, but you have to have whites and white leadership that want to have that dialogue. Most of them don’t want to have it. We have to create that dialogue and hopefully some of the things we are doing creates the climate for that dialogue. What I have found is that many people in America, particularly the white people, don’t really want peace, they want quiet. “Just shut up and don’t talk about it. Fine, there may be a problem, but let’s not talk about it.” That’s not peace, that’s quiet. You’ll never have peace until you have real dialogue and look at the difference between the life of a white and life of a non-white in this country, and how we close the gap. That’s how you get peace. So people don’t want racial justice; they want racial quiet. But racial quiet in the absence of racial justice is to allow for things to go forward unfairly. In the long wrong, that leads to explosions because people hold it in as long as they can and then they explode. The way to stop the explosions is to deal with the problem.

DS: Would you say what sums up the problem with dialogue as you see it is that white people are too afraid to offend black people by asking questions about their perceptions, but that black people become too offended by white people’s ignorance?

AS: I think that’s a fair statement. I think that’s a very fair statement. I wish I had said it. That hit it right on the head. Really.

Don Imus, Michael Richards and Dog The Bounty Hunter

DS: When you think about Imus, Michael Richards and Duane Chapman, it’s starting to seem almost like a rehearsed play. They have these racist explosions, and then they come to you seeking absolution. How do you feel about playing this?

The critics say, “Why do they go to Al Sharpton for absolution?” What nobody ever asks is, “What did Sharpton do?” I made Imus go on my radio show and told him he should be fired. I never talked to the “Bounty man” [above]. And I told Michael Richards I’m not meeting with him.” – Sharpton on those seeking absolution from him for racist remarks.

AS: That’s a great question, because if you name Don Imus, Richards, Bounty Hunter, they all three came, and none of them got absolution from me. The critics say, “Why do they go to Al Sharpton for absolution?” What nobody ever asks is, “What did Sharpton do?” I made Imus go on my radio show and told him he should be fired. I never talked to the “Bounty man”. And I told Michael Richards I’m not meeting with him. So, despite what they designed to happen with me, I never cooperated with the design. Imus only went on my show thinking if he did he would get past it; I used it for the basis to get him fired. He got everything but absolution. Why do they come? Because of my visibility. Right now, National Action Network is the only civil rights organization in the country that can put tens of thousands of people in the street. I think we proved that if nothing else this year from Sean Bell to Jena to Washington. He thought if he did he would get past it; I used it for the basis to get him fired. You go where you think if you can get this group not to fight me, you get a pass. If somebody is accused of anti-Semitism, they go to the Anti-Defamation League. Does that make Abe Foxman the “President of the Jews”? No! That’s what ADL does. It’s insulting to us. They say, “Al Sharpton is not the President of Black America.” No, I’m like ADL is in the Jewish community. That’s what he does. If anybody is going to jump on this, it’s him, so let me go to him. That doesn’t mean he’s in charge of all blacks. It means if it’s a civil rights violation—that’s what they have to do—he’s been the guy up front. It’s very simple. In gay communities you have the Human Rights Campaign. With women, you’ve got NOW. In the Jewish community, you’ve got ADL. Why wouldn’t you have a National Action Network in the black community? But if sanity is that NOW can have Kim Gandy, and the Jewish community can have Abe Foxman, and the gay community can have Human Rights group, but the black community can’t have an “Al Sharpton”, that’s absurd!

DS: One of the issues that came up in reference to that at Thanksgiving was political correctness. My brother-in-law brought up the Don Imus ‘nappy-headed hos’ issue and said it was political correctness. His brother said that there is a big difference between calling black girls playing basketball nappy-headed hos versus asking a black person why their families are in trouble.

AS: Big difference. Big difference.

DS: But those get equated as being politically incorrect.

AS: I think you’re right. They equate it, and it’s wrong. The reason I demanded Imus be fired was because he had a record of making these kinds of derogatory statements. It’s clear that ‘nappy-headed’ was a racist term. That’s not questioning social maladies in the community. What is the social malady or irresponsibility about ‘nappy-headed’? ‘Ho’ is not only racist, it’s misogynist. People who tried to put that over as he just wasn’t politically correct are ridiculous. That’s why if I or anybody else said a racist term against anybody else. That’s not politically incorrect; that’s bias. And all of us have made mistakes with language, but you pay for it. Which is why I don’t object to him getting a job again, but he had to lose that job because he had consistently violated that job.

DS: Are you okay that Don Imus is going back on the air?

AS: Well, we’ll monitor him; I’m not saying I’m going to throw a banquet for him and say welcome home. He has the right to make a living, but because he has such a consistent pattern with this we are going to monitor him to make sure he doesn’t do it again.

DS: Do you work with the Hip Hop Action Network?

AS: On some issues. They disagree with me at first when I came out hard on the N-word and all, but then they moderated their view. On some things we work together.

DS: How did they disagree with you?

AS: When I first came out and said the N-word, the B-word, should be stopped. Russell Simmons came out and said we can’t censor artists. Then he got such a backlash he said, “We got it to be maybe voluntary, or something.” Russell kind of slid backwards on that one. My thing is I’m against the use of the word, and I’ve been against it for a long time. Even in my book, Al on America I wrote a whole chapter on the hip hop generation and how to stop that. On top of it, all of us have used it; I’ve even stopped using it privately, because it’s wrong. I think the thing that really drove it home to me was the kid who got beat up in Howards Beach last year, and Fat Nick—the white that beat him up saying no niggers in the neighborhood—his defense in court was that he was using a hip hop term. It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. We can’t be the only ones in America in which there is no hate term.

DS: If you could choose how you die, how would it be?

AS: I would probably choose doing something active. I would either be leading a march or preaching a sermon. I don’t want to die old and incapacitated. I’d rather die in the firing line.

DS: What do you think is the greatest threat to humanity?

AS: Our ignoring nature. Our ignoring the signs of nature.

DS: Global warming?

AS: Global warming would be at the top of the list. Al Gore ended up being right. I think our ignoring nature, global warming, and then our ignoring the need for one standard of human rights all over the world. This second. But first nature, because we won’t be here if we don’t start taking nature seriously. Like global warming and ecology and whatever we are doing with the environment. Second is how we deal with human rights standard all over the world.

DS: Are there any national politicians you look up to as leaders?

AS: I respect Dennis Kucinich. I respect Keith Ellison in Minnesota. Those are the two that come to mind right away. I’m far more progressive than most, but I really respect both of them.

DS: Do you think Joel Klein has done a good job with New York City public schools?

AS: I think Joel Klein has done better, than I thought he would. I’m not sure I’m into the mayor controlling the system. It’s funny, Joel has a sense of grass roots than one would think. I think he has done better than I would have given him credit for. I didn’t have a lot of hope for him. He has defied my low expectation.


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November 12, 2007

Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger on the Bush family feud, neoconservatives and the Christian right

Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger on the Bush family feud, neoconservatives and the Christian right

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Craig Unger: “In Spain my publisher, Planeta, is considered a center-right company and they made me the big book of their season. In Europe I am considered a straight-ahead reporter. In the United States I tend to be shunned by the mainstream media, almost completely, especially by the White House press corp.”
photo: David Shankbone

In a recent interview with the Dalai Lama’s Representative to the Americas, Tashi Wangdi, David Shankbone remarked to him that Americans have trouble relating to centuries-long conflicts that exist between peoples around the world, including those in Asia. Many Asian countries dislike each other tremendously, and the conflict over Tibet is just one enduring multi-national battle.

According to Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger, it is not that Americans do not have these deep-seeded conflicts; it is that they do not remember them and thus have no context in which to see them as they resurface in our political culture.

On the same day he spoke to the Dalai Lama’s representative, Shankbone sat down with Unger, author of The New York Times best-seller House of Bush, House of Saud. In his new book, The Fall of the House of Bush, Unger attempts to fill in some of the blanks of an epochal narrative in American politics. Using a mix of painstaking research, interviews with cultural and political leaders and delving into previously classified records to come up with some overview of how America has arrived at this particular political moment.

To make sense of such complicated history, Unger draws upon three themes: He illustrates the conflict within the modern Republican Party via the oedipal conflict between George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. Things are not well within the House of Bush. Bush Jr. has not only shut out his father and his allies from his administration—something Bob Woodward discovered in his interviews with the President—but he also appointed many of his father’s bitterest enemies to key cabinet positions.

Unger’s second theme draws upon this Bush family feud: many of Bush Sr.’s foes happen to be leaders of the neoconservative movement, who had been working against the President’s father since the 1970’s. Back then the neoconservatives did not have a base of political support within the Republican Party, which brings Unger to his third theme: the marriage between the neoconservatives and the Christian right to create a formidable ideological block.

Unger is a Fellow at the Center for Law and Security at NYU’s School of Law. In addition to his work at Vanity Fair, he is a former editor-in-chief of Boston Magazine, and former Deputy Editor of the New York Observer. A journalist of the old school who believes in verifying his sources’ veracity, Unger illuminates the Republican Party’s ideological struggle between the old and the new and traces its history for those who do know it.

Unger disputes the recent assertion by The New York Times that these forces are dead; they are thriving. Below is David Shankbone’s interview with Craig Unger about his book, The Fall of the House of Bush.

On the likelihood of an attack on Iran before the 2008 election

David Shankbone: Tim Wirth sent David Mixner this article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books, and Mixner sent me a link to it. It posits that the Bush administration has all along planned on having a permanent military presence in Iraq. Have you seen it?

Craig Unger: I skimmed this and I know the thirty trillion dollar figure. What is astonishing about the neocons if you read them, is how little they mention oil. You can characterize their plans as strategic dominance in the Middle East for the United States and oil is obviously a part of that. I don’t know if Holt means it ironically or intentionally, but I think it is oversimplifying to say, “Oh, it’s exactly as they intended.” Although there are people like Michael Ledeen who say “Let’s turn it into a steaming cauldron”—those are his words.

According to Unger, Ron Paul is the only Republican candidate who would not attack Iran. “The neocons are in Giuliani’s camp, such as Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Pipes.”

I would never say things went exactly as planned. If you go back to the work of David Wurmser, for example, they really believed that a Shia like Chalabi would take over Iraq and be pro-west and recognize Israel. They talk about the Hashemite among the Shia in Iraq rising up and they hoped they would overthrow the mullahs in Iran. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

DS: You’ve written that Iran is definitely on the agenda for a military strike by the Americans.

CU: Oh, absolutely. It’s possible it will occur under Bush, but if not and a Republican wins they will do it. The neocons are in Giuliani’s camp, such as Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Pipes.

DS: If the neconservatives succeed, two years into the future where will we be?

CU: The biggest single question is Iran. If we bomb Iran, they will immediately block the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz is only about thirty miles wide and forty percent of the world’s oil goes through there. Cruise missiles can easily hit Saudi oil facilities. Oil will shoot to $200, maybe $300 a barrel. At the pump it’s hard to calculate, but that would mean at $6 a gallon. We currently have minesweepers in the Gulf, which suggests we are right there for that possibility. That’s one of the scary things. But it unleashes uncontrollable forces. If you have the Saudis attacked by Iran you have the Sunni-Shia conflict erupting throughout the entire region. There’s an inverse correlation between the price of the dollar and oil, so as oil goes up, the dollar goes down. The dollar is already weak and would plummet accordingly, which would start a global recession. There would be a global oil war during a period where we may be approaching peak oil—I know that concept is controversial—but its also at a time when China’s energy needs are going through the roof; their imports are going up as much as forty percent a year. Their energy consumption is going through the roof, and the same with India. We used to be the lone huge consumer and it didn’t bother anyone, but now there are real rivals out there. And in geostrategic terms, we are getting in a weaker and weaker position. If you look at the costs of the Iraq War, 4,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousand of Iraq dead, four million refugees, hundreds of billions of dollars spent; but in geostrategic terms we are weaker off, Israel is much weaker, and the only beneficiary has been Iran, whose GDP has gone through the roof because of the price of oil has gone from $22 to $98.

DS: Are there any Republican front-runners that would not undertake an assault on Iran?

CU: The only one is not a front-runner: Ron Paul. I don’t think there is a single Republican who has tried to discredit Bush’s policies. One of my concerns addressed in this book is I don’t want people to think, “Oh, the Bushs are gone, it’s all over.” No, no, no. We’re going to be paying for this for decades. The Christian right and the neocons: that is the Republican Party today. It transcends Bush. Bush became the vehicle through whom they carried out their policies.

DS: So it could have been anybody but they ingratiated themselves with Bush?

CU: He was an ideal vehicle. Partly he has a name that was identified with the old Republican establishment—

DS: And he wasn’t particularly well-informed, giving them an “in” to educate him?

CU: That’s for sure. A lot of voters thought they were getting his father. Wall Street Republicans thought of him as a moderate. He used terms like “ Compassionate Conservative” that were perceived as moderate. I have a chapter called “Dog Whistle Politics” where he’s speaking one language to the general public, and another to his base. So compassionate conservatism is precisely that. It really was a program for taking away the social safety net and giving it to right-wing churches. It was a movement that was about anything but a liberal safety net.

DS: Within the United States, what are the neoconservatives and Christian right concerned will happen that could scuttle their agenda?

CU: The Democrats winning, obviously, which is one reason they might bomb Iran before the election. That would change the dynamic of the entire election. I think there are two possibilities: are they going to do it before the next election? I don’t have the answer and I can’t predict it, but it would be a disaster. It would change the dynamics of the election that they are soft on terrorism, they want to throw Israel to Iran—

DS: Would that still work after all this time?

CU: The Zogby Poll just showed 52% of Americans think we should bomb Iran. The media has not improved at all since the Iraq War, and 90% of Americans were behind that. Part of the problem is that this jingoist stuff you might expect from Fox News, but when The New York Times becomes a mouthpiece for Dick Cheney, you then form a consensus in the national conversation and anyone critical is marginalized.

This history behind the Bush family feud

DS: Is there a movement within the Republican Party that is working against the fundamentalism in the party?

CU: I frame it in an almost oedipal way—the first chapter is called “Oedipus Tex”—and they have lost. It was Bush Sr. and his best friend Scowcroft against Bush Jr. On the surface there were no words between them; they would play horseshoes and talk nice about their houses and Midland.

DS: Bob Woodward was astonished when Bush Jr. told him he had not spoken to Bush Sr. about the Iraq War at all. Do you come across what is behind that?

“[I]n 1994 you had George W. and Jeb running for governor of Texas and Florida, respectively, and exactly the reverse happened of what people expected: that George would lose and Jeb would win. The opposite happened.”

CU: First, George W. Bush was not the favorite son by a long-shot. Jeb was, and even Neil was ahead of them. But in 1994 you had George W. and Jeb running for governor of Texas and Florida, respectively, and exactly the reverse happened of what people expected: that George would lose and Jeb would win. The opposite happened. In 1998, George wins reelection and suddenly he’s a two-term governor of a very visible state who has positioned himself for the Presidency. He knows nothing about foreign policy. He had only left the country one time, which was to visit his daughter in Italy. He had no curiosity about the world. Bush Sr. decides they have to educate him about it, so they bring in Prince Bandar and Condi Rice and begin a series of seminars. They are thinking the old guard—by that I mean Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice, James Baker,Colin Powell—will take charge; that is not what happens at all. In late 1998 the neocons quickly move in, and you have Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams making semi-secret trips down to Texas.

DS: That was to educate Bush? The Daily Show did this piece where they did a debate splicing Texas Governor Bush’s views of what he said when he was governor versus what he has said as President, and they are polar opposites. When he was governor he was saying we can’t go out nation-building.

CU: Right. If you carefully, carefully examine what is happening, Richard Perle comes back from one of those trips and tells a breakfast meeting in 1999 that Bush is going to carry out their plan to overturn Saddam. Bush himself says it in the fall of 1999 and says, “I’m going to take him out.” Afterwards people call him on it and ask, “You’re going to take out Saddam?” and he gets criticized for it mercilessly. He backs down and says, ‘No, no, I mean take out the weapons of mass destruction.” He backs off and attacks Gore as you say, and says we are not going to do nation-building instead. But he’s had these private conversations; Stephen Hadley tells these private fundraisers that Bush’s first priority is going to be to overthrow Saddam. This is in early 2000. I paid a lot of attention to the period just after the election was settled. Some fascinating things happen—I wrote about this as a Salon expert; it’s a Wolfowitz story—the neocons realize if they want to carry out the Iraq War, they need to control the intelligence apparatus. The perfect way to do this is to make Paul Wolfowitz the head of the CIA.

DS: What was the problem with the intelligence apparatus at that time that the neocons needed to take control of it?

CU: If you go back all the way to the mid-1970s, the neocons were distorting intelligence even back then. They had an operation known as Team B. From there I start tracing five neocons who are on the staff of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. He was a muscular Democrat. He was strong on labor, but a hard-line Cold Warrior who wanted to roll back the Soviet Union. The neocons grew out of that. His hero is Albert Wohlstetter, who was one of the models for Dr. Strangelove. 1976 is the era of détente, and the neocons hate this; they fear losing their favorite enemy, the Soviet Union. They are saying the CIA is coming up with much too rosy of predictions and they don’t believe the intelligence. Who takes over the CIA at this point? George H.W. Bush. They decide they have to go to battle against him and they form what is known as Team B, which starts an “alternative intelligence assessment.” It effectively says the CIA is all wrong and that we have to redo their intelligence. But Team B’s estimates were completely inaccurate. I go into considerable detail of how they vastly, vastly overestimated the power of the Soviet Union.

DS: How did they bring Team B into the present?

CU: What you see back then are events that prefigure the Iraq War to an enormous extent. The key operatives in the White House then are the youngest Chief of Staff in the history of the United States, Dick Cheney; and the youngest Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. They are siding with Team B. Here you have thirty years ago the beginning of this alliance between Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

Bush appoints his father’s enemies to his Cabinet

DS: So Rumsfeld and Cheney are not seen as old Bush Sr. people.

CU: Rumsfeld is probably the bitterest, bitterest enemy of George H.W. Bush ever.

DS: Weren’t they considered part of the realpolitik school?

CU: Cheney was, but not Rumsfeld. And Cheney was Rumsfeld’s protégé.

DS: What effect did it have on Bush Sr. that some of his bitterest foes were assuming positions in his son’s administration?

CU: He is famously nonresponsive on this, but James Baker spoke out. What you see going on in December 2000 is that Bush Jr.’s team had decided on Indiana Senator Dan Coats for Secretary of Defense.

DS: I remember that mentioned.

CU: It was because he was against gays in the military. What better qualification could one possibly have, right? They first appoint Colin Powell as Secretary of State, and he has a press conference with Bush in which Powell is so dazzling that Cheney freaks out and says, “My God, Dan Coats will never be able to stand up to him!” They need somebody more powerful. They call in Donald Rumsfeld and James Baker warns Bush, “You know what this guy did to your father.” Rumsfeld had sabotaged Bush Sr. again and again and again. Bush had been considered a likely choice for Vice President under Gerald Ford instead of Nelson Rockefeller, and Rumsfeld kept him off the ticket.

DS: Why was there a dispute between Rumsfeld and Bush Sr.?

CU: It was ambition. Rumsfeld had Presidential ambitions himself.

Paul Wolfowitz and the Office of Special Plans

According to Unger’s sources, Paul Wolfowitz’s affair with Shaha Ali Riza (above) scuttled plans to make him the Director of the CIA.

DS: Coming back to current times, what continues to transpire in the formation of Bush Jr.’s 2000 cabinet?

CU: They want to appoint Wolfowitz head of the CIA. Well, there’s a problem: he is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he is allegedly caught having an affair with a female staff member. He’s also allegedly having another extramarital relationship with another woman who had become more famous, Shaha Ali Riza.

DS: I believe Riza was called Wolfowitz’s “neoconcubine” by his critics.

CU: Yes. To him, that relationship was the romantic embodiment of the neocon venture: he’s a secular Jew; she’s a secular Muslim. He parades her on his arm at all the neocon events that season. There’s one person who doesn’t like this situation: Clare Wolfowitz, his wife of thirty years and mother of his three children. She’s not happy.

DS: What does Mrs. Wolfowitz do about his extramarital affairs?

CU: She’s writes a letter to George W. Bush saying, ‘You can’t possibly make my husband head of the CIA because he’s a security risk,’—she has not commented on this, by the way—that ‘he’s a security risk not just because he has undisclosed relationships, but because one of them is with a foreign national, Shaha Ali Riza.’ This alleged letter I’m told was intercepted by Scooter Libby, who is Wolfowitz’s protégé at Yale and is to become Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney. They are now very wary of putting Wolfowitz up for Congressional hearings; this could be a mess! Instead, they call in Donald Rumsfeld and they see that if they are going to handle intelligence they are going to do it through the Defense Department. This is where the Office of Special Plans gets created.

DS: So they decide to redo the entire intelligence apparatus for Wolfowitz?

CU: This is an alternative national security apparatus. We spend $40 billion a year on intelligence and a great power has to have accurate intelligence. So they put up disinformation pipelines to have the intelligence they want to back up their policies.

DS: What was the CIA’s reaction to this?

CU: They awaken to it bit by bit by bit. The people in the CIA who were aware of it became incredibly angry and there were battles and some people who have spoken out about it are former CIA officials and defense intelligence people. Patrick Lang, Ray McGovern, Melvin Goodman, Philip Giraldi, and so on. I ended up with around ten people like that on the record. The Defense Department was going ballistic. Rumsfeld and Cheney, in a stroke of bureaucratic brilliance, devise this way to hijack for the executive branch the whole national security apparatus. They now can stop the bureaucracy when they want to, grease the wheels when they want to; for example, they put in Josh Bolton as under Secretary of State, who acts as a spy watching Colin Powell.

DS: Was Powell aware of this?

CU: Yes, and he didn’t act. He could easily have fired Bolton. He failed to act.

DS: Why?

CU: He has to answer for that and in the end it was moral cowardice or weakness. The State Department has its own intelligence apparatus, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and they were finding fault again and again with the intelligence that was coming out of the new Pentagon unit. INR wanted to discredit Curveball, for instance; they wanted to discredit the aluminum tubes and the Niger documents. So Bolton and his people forbade INR director Greg Thielmann from attending various key meetings. Now you would think Powell would have stood up for his own intelligence unit, but he did not. When it came to the week before the United Nations meeting in which he made his speech, Colin Powell could have had his people there. He did call them to go over the material somewhat, but they were not present to argue out these points of conflict, and as a result, Cheney’s information got in. When they were preparing for the UN meeting, all the intelligence data came from Cheney’s office and not from the CIA.

What the neoconservatives want

DS: What is the end goal with all of these machinations?

CU: You can see it in the neocon foreign policy papers that they have been writing as early as 1992. The first one was a Defense Department policy guidance paper. Cheney was Defense Secretary and he had under him Wolfowitz, Khalizad and Feith, key neocons who helped formulate this policy, which was considered so radical that Bush Sr. rejected it out of hand. Then you see duplicity on Cheney’s part: publicly he sides with Bush Sr. and Scowcroft , who were very very deliberate. One of the most important foreign policy decisions they made was to not topple Saddam. They had a REAL coalition—unlike the one we have today—of thirty-four countries, eight of which were Arab who supported us throwing Saddam out of Kuwait. They decided, and it was very deliberate, that if they went after Saddam and continued on to Baghdad they would ruin their coalition, alienate their Arab partners, and be mired in a quagmire forever.

DS: Saddam was so unpopular in the region; how did they foresee they would ruin the coalition if they rid Iraq of a very brutal dictator?

CU: American troops occupying an Arab country is a real, real problem, especially in view of Israel. Notice they kept Israel out of it; they were not part of that coalition. They handled it with certain dexterity and were much tougher on Israel, who was unhappy to some extent. This is where you see enormous bifurcation. Out of this comes the effort to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The term “a clean break” comes out of a very important neocon policy paper called “A Clean Break from the Land for Peace Process.” It means they are throwing that out, which is very interesting because that was official American policy, it was the Oslo policy, and it was even Israeli policy at that point.

DS: It still is.

CU: Theoretically, but they have sabotaged it so badly. Netanyahu did not make good on a lot of the promises…

DS: Arafat didn’t—

CU: Arafat backed out.

DS: So what is the end goal?

CU: It’s a strategic vision of the Middle East.

DS: To control it?

CU: Yes, and they saw Iraq becoming at worst something like Jordan, which is a Hashemite Kingdom that is pro-west and reasonably nice to Israel. We’d have military bases there and we’d have oil deals. Iraq would be a beachhead from which we could go on to Iran. And Iran is a great prize. In 1996 Netanyahu comes to Washington, he’s presented with the Clean Break policy by Richard Perle, and a couple of days later he makes an address before a joint session of Congress and borrows from A Clean Break, but he adds a new country and says ‘the most important country in the region is Iran.’

DS: Was that a surprise?

CU: What’s interesting is that you start to hear the terms “Democracy in the Middle East” and “Democratization” and what you realize is that it’s not about democratization at all, it’s about strategic dominance of the region, and that’s what their policy has been about.

The Christian right and the neoconservatives

DS: In your book you talk about a confluence of social forces. You have the Christian right and you have the neoconservatives, who came together to assist each other in their agendas.

CU: Absolutely. This goes way, way back.

DS: To the 1970s?

CU: Certainly to the 1970’s. The Christian right is part of the DNA of America. I go back to English Puritanism, and you see John Winthrop in the 1630’s saying, “We are starting a shining city on a hill.” Shining city on a hill means we’re the New Jerusalem, we’re the new Zion. America is the Promised Land. What we do is ordained by God. This is Christian Zionism. It is a phrase that has never appeared in the New York Times, but it is an incredibly powerful force that is operative today. It has been picked up by the Christian right and unites them with Israel. It brings together the Christian right, the neocons and the Israeli right: Likud and Benyamin Netanyahu.
You see it come alive in the seventies. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the first non-Labor Prime Minister in Israel, called Jerry Falwell realizing that America is only 2.5% Jewish and they need a broader base. About 30% of America is evangelical. If you read the Bible, the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis where God says to , “ I give to you this land between the Euphrates and the Nile.” If you believe in biblical inerrancy, as evangelicals do, then you have to believe, “I shall bless those who bless thee; I shall curse those who curse thee.” That’s in Genesis, and I talked to Falwell and a lot of evangelicals. I traveled undercover with Tim LeHay.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who is a Christian Zionist: “God appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am giving you this land — the West Bank.’ This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.”

DS: Did they openly talk to you about these things?

CU: Yes, this alliance is not a secret. What I do in the book is reframe the entire paradigm. Everyone talks about “Islam vs. The West” and I say that no, it’s fundamentalism—and by that I mean Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, not just Islamic—against the modern, post-Enlightenment world, and it happens that our government is on the wrong side. We are carrying out a fundamentalist foreign policy.

DS: How did the neoconservatives and Christian right come together?

CU: They play very different roles. The neocons are an ideological vanguard and the Christian right is a mass electoral base. You have a couple hundred thousand pastors who can bring them together. The role is the way the unions used to be for the Democratic Party, for example. You had Netanyahu calling Jerry Falwell, which I told you about. You also have people like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein who formed the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. He has worked with a lot of the evangelicals. It has been fostered by the Israeli right and the neocons. I asked Michael Ledeen why he was on the 700 Club and he said, “It’s just we like to promote our views.” People like Gary Bauer have participated in a lot of these policy discussions. You have people like Tom DeLay proclaiming himself as a Christian Zionist openly, or Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. They would say it’s not a political issue whether Israel should have this land, that it’s a biblical certainty. This has to happen.

DS: It would seemingly take a lot of collusion between them. How does it work?

CU: The Christian right are not policy-makers in general, though there is a Council for National Policy. Falwell told me it’s an umbrella group overseeing all these evangelical groups. It has four or five hundred members and I list some. They are the big honchos of the Christian right, and within that is a smaller group called The Arlington Group, which has about fifty people. They were in regular contact with Karl Rove on a regular basis.

DS: Bush is convinced this is all God’s will?

CU: I go back to the Puritans for a reason because we are the new Zion and what we do is God’s will. I have a very interesting quote by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi who met with Bush. He says that Bush believes God has a mission for America and, “In that belief he is no different from the Founders who actually saw themselves replaying the Israelites crossing the Red Sea…” When he speaks of the “Founders” he is not talking of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; he is talking about Cotton Mather and John Winthrop. When you got to Liberty University you see the halls have portraits of the great Puritans as precursors of the evangelicals. Yes, I believe that Bush thinks what he has done has been ordained by God. He’s smart enough not to talk about it in those terms.

Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians

DS: You have a chapter about the assassination of Yitzak Rabin; how did that advance the neoconservative agenda?

CU: It’s one of the least understood events in contemporary history and it is really important in terms of our policy today. Yes, it was done by this one right-wing Israeli, but it was ordained by Orthodox rabbis because Rabin was backing the land-for-peace process. It’s parallel to the Sadat assassination by Islamic fundamentalists. Rabin was breaking Halakhic law by supporting land for peace because it is divinely-ordained land.

DS: Are the Israeli orthodox Jews in touch with the Christian right in the United States?

CU: Completely. And the neocons are a secular version of that, and you see it start coming together, and Netanyahu becomes one of the great backers of an alliance with the Christian right. Michael Ledeen is going on Pat Roberton’s 700 Club shows. You start to have this weaving together.

DS: What does the Christian right have to gain from this?

CU: It’s theological.

DS: The End of Days?

CU: Yes, Christ will not return until that land is given back to the Jews. I try to draw this in the book. People try to talk about the Culture Wars, Red State/Blue State. But no, it’s much deeper than that. It goes back to the founding of America and the Puritans, really. I thought I grew up in a country that put a man on the moon, unraveled the human genome, that discovered DNA and invented the iPod, but no. No western country believes so strongly in Creationism and that the world was born 6,000 years ago; that evolution is wrong. This war is deep and profound and what’s happened now is the government is run by people who believe in dictating our policies based upon the Bible.

DS: This is so much material to be covered in just one book.

CU: Yes, because you can see it in the judiciary. So many students come from Pat Robertson’s law school—

DS: They have a model of the Supreme Court for arguing these fights.

CU: Right. So many of the people in the White House come from Patrick Henry College. It used to be you went to the Ivy League. Now they have people who are homeschooled by evangelicals because they didn’t want them to be poisoned by the secular public school system.

DS: Our society has always been complicated, but there are so many layers to this complex onion of a social movement that it must have been a challenge to articulate it in your book. We hold a lot of myths about our history.

CU: This book goes from biblical times to English Puritanism to espionage and intelligence battles at Langley to the Likudniks in Israel to the assassination of Rabin to the Deep South and the Bible Belt today. You do see the same themes again and again. I tried to do a narrative with three narrative lines: The rise of the neocons in the 1970’s; the rise of the Christian right, which goes back to Biblical times through English Puritanism and the founding of America to becoming a powerful force in American politics and taking over the government because they have a leader who is now President of the United States. It’s important to understand that the Christian right thinks of Bush as a leader, or they have. Although he certainly has lost credibility, the Christian right is not dead at all. I would take issue with The New York Times in their cover story a week or so ago where they proclaim the death of the Christian right, which they do that same story time and again.

DS: Exactly, they recycle the same thematic stories over and over and that one has been written before.

CU: Right. I also try to weave it through the father-son battle. Although I have written critically of Bush Sr. in the past, he certainly is within the framework of the post-Enlightenment reason and reality-based world. There is this quiet sub-rosa battle in which he uses intermediaries in the book like Scowcroft. If there’s a tragic hero in the book, it’s Scowcroft, who is in a very delicate position because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his close friendship with Bush Sr.

DS: But Scowcroft is loathed by George W.’s administration for coming out against his foreign policy.

CU: Right, and now Scowcroft speaks out early and often. He’ll see what’s happening and does what he can, but ultimately he fails.

DS: What does Bush Sr. think or say about Scowcroft’s public statements?

CU: They are still friends. He rarely comments on them, and he doesn’t like to be called out about it. There have been a couple of incidents that I open the book with, statements by Bush Jr. that have been perceived as digs at his father, such as saying “We don’t want to cut and run again.”

DS: Why would Bush Sr. not feel he has a moral obligation to the nation to make his feelings known to his son instead of keeping quiet and not speaking up?

CU: I’m wary of psychoanalyzing him, but I believe they don’t discuss it. He’s come forth several times and said, “Look, why don’t you talk to Scowcroft or James Baker” and he kind of leaves it at that. The Iraq Study Group report did have some earmarks of anger venting . Scowcroft actually goes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to get their support of the Iraq Study Group plan. He also goes to Condi Rice, who is the last person from that world who seems to have real access to Bush, and talks to her about it. She seems to sign on and at one point she says something like, “Well, when do you think we should do this?” and Scowcroft says, “Not we, you.” She never really does anything; she never stands up. She has become an enabler for the neocons such as Wolfowitz, who have convinced Bush to believe that we have to democratize the entire Middle East, topple Saddam, and only then can we deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Of course, that’s absolutely disastrous.

DS: The neoconservative’s policies are so high-risk and there are so many things that could make it go even more wrong. Grover Norquist came out and said that nothing the supporters of the war said would happen with Iraq has happened, and that everything the critics said would happen has happened. If Mubarak suddenly dies in Egypt and that country erupts into a civil war, which is a scenario that is often discussed as likely, that would implode the region even further. How do they account for all these risks they are laying in the lap of the United States?

CU: I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, but I can say they are REAL ideologues. It’s worth going back to their history and a lot of this stuff is toxic, third-rail stuff. David Brooks attacked me as a conspiracy nut. The point isn’t that the neocons had this weird Communist conspiracy or anything like that, but that they were trained ideologues and trained in ideological battles and sectarian disputes. They purge people who disagree with them and work in an echo-chamber environment where they don’t admit any facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. You see them operate as this ideological cadre. They purged people in the State Department who were part of the Realist crowd, and I go into that. They’ve had the same ideas for thirty years.

On the press

DS: What sort of reaction do you get to your work?

CU: That’s a good question. The reaction to my previous book was actually terrific, but it’s interesting the patterns. In Europe—England, Spain, The Netherlands—it was terrific and I am thought of as a reasoned Centrist. I am not thought of as particularly left-wing in any way.

German artist Thomas Demand speaking with Craig Unger about The Fall of the House of Bush.
photo: David Shankbone

DS: You painstakingly researched this—

CU: I have over 2,000 footnotes there. So in Spain my publisher, Planeta, is considered a center-right company and they made me the big book of their season. In Europe I am considered a straight-ahead reporter. In the United States I tend to be shunned by the mainstream media, almost completely, especially by the White House press corp.

DS: Who have lost almost all credibility with the public…

CU: But they are still there.

DS: We’re stuck with them.

CU: Right, but they haven’t changed, so I will get almost nothing from them. This includes the supposedly liberal New York Times. I deal with the press to a fair extent in the book; not as much as I would like because that’s a whole interview in itself.

DS: I interviewed Gay Talese, who had nothing but contempt for the Washington press corps. He feels they should be broken up and dispersed around the country to report on the federal government. Report on Washington from Denver, from Austin…national reporting from the states.

CU: It’s shocking the difference between the British and the Americans. The huge part of it is the addiction to access. It’s opportunism—

DS: You get to go to a party; you get to ride in Air Force One—

CU: Right! “I want that interview with Donald Rumsfeld so I’m not going to do anything to alienate him by writing a story that is critical of him.” And when you get that story you end up writing exactly what he tells you and it ain’t the truth.

DS: Just to be able to say, “I interviewed Donald Rumsfeld.”

CU: Right, you get front page and it helps you within your newspaper. You’re considered a star at whatever publication there is. That’s how the phony stories of WMDs got in The New York Times and other publications. More than ideology, it was opportunism, careerism on the part of the reporters.

DS: Talese also said that the press is as much responsible for getting us into this war as are the people running it.

CU: Part of what I did with this book is I am explicitly critical of the American press corp., which has done a dreadful job of covering these issues. That in and of itself means they are less likely to cover you. If you look at the national conversation it has a narrative. The only place you can go to find an alternative narrative is Jon Stewart or Colbert or Keith Olberman. But there’s almost nothing in the tradition of the old Walter Cronkite reporting. It barely exists. The other alternative voices are the international press, and the blogs.

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October 30, 2007

ACLU President Strossen on religion, drugs, guns and impeaching George Bush

ACLU President Strossen on religion, drugs, guns and impeaching George Bush

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nadine Strossen: “People will often ask me, “Wasn’t it hard for you when the ACLU defended the rights of the Nazis to march in Skokie?” No! For me, it’s never about the Nazis, it’s about freedom of speech. It’s about the principle. So I tend to see things in a rather abstract level. For every bad piece of mail I receive, I get marriage proposals, love letters, letters of praise!”
All photos: David Shankbone

There are few organizations in the United States that elicit a stronger emotional response than the American Civil Liberties Union, whose stated goal is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States”. Those people include gays, Nazis, women seeking abortion, gun owners, SPAM mailers and drug users. People who are often not popular with various segments of the public. The ACLU’s philosophy is not that it agrees or disagrees with any of these people and the choices that they make, but that they have personal liberties that must not be trampled upon.

In Wikinews reporter David Shankbone’s interview with the President of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, he wanted to cover some basic ground on the ACLU’s beliefs. Perhaps the area where they are most misunderstood or have their beliefs most misrepresented is their feelings about religion in the public sphere. The ACLU categorically does not want to see religion disappear from schools or in the public forum; but they do not want to see government advocacy of any particular religion. Thus, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s placement of a ten ton monument to the Ten Commandments outside the courthouse is strenuously opposed; but “Lone Ranger of the Manger” Rita Warren’s placement of nativity scenes in public parks is vigorously defended. In the interview, Strossen talks about how certain politicians and televangelists purposefully misstate the law and the ACLU’s work in order to raise funds for their campaigns.

David Shankbone’s discussion with Strossen touches upon many of the ACLU’s hot button issues: religion, Second Amendment rights, drug liberalization, “partial-birth abortion” and whether or not George W. Bush should be impeached. It may surprise the reader that many ideas people have about the most visible of America’s civil libertarian organizations are not factually correct and that the ACLU often works closely with many of the organizations people think despise its existence.

Strossen’s background

David Shankbone: Why did you want to be an attorney?

Nadine Strossen: To be a civil libertarian to affect individual rights in a positive way.

DS: Why?

NS: As far back as I can remember I have always had an innate belief in what I now would call individual rights, equal justice, due process, and it came out in my family experiences and in my experiences in school as a young child.

DS: What family experiences?

NS: I shouldn’t say so much direct experiences—well, to some extent—but the stories I was brought up on as a kid. My father was a holocaust survivor and my mother’s father was a protester during World War I when he came to this country as an immigrant, and he was literally spat upon for not going to fight in the war. His official sentence for being a conscientious objector was to be forced to stand against the courthouse in Hudson County, New Jersey so that passers-by could spit on him.

DS: What were you taught about him?

NS: I knew him as a kid and he told me these stories, and my mother told me, and it was very upsetting to me, but very inspiring to think about trying to rectify injustices. When I say my own family, my own personal experiences are so trivial compared to those, but having teachers not allow different viewpoints come out in class and seeing kids tormenting other kids that were different. When I got a little bit older there was an experience with a teacher who was exposing students to different viewpoints about the Vietnam War, and there was a call for him to be fired and he was editorialized against; I led a campaign to defend his free speech rights, and our free speech rights. Once I had the idea that I could go to law school to get professional skills to advocate for values that I had always believed in, it just seemed the right thing to do. There are many other paths, I realize, but it certainly has been a good path to try to work with the values I care deeply about that I have had throughout my whole life.

DS: When you went to Harvard, were you an activist on campus?

NS: Not so much. I should say, I was an activist, but it wasn’t like I was a leader of something. Probably because I was involved in so many organizations and I was glad that I was exploring so many different forms of activism. In college I was involved in the anti-war movement, and I was very involved in the women’s movement. Reproductive freedom was a really big deal then; it was before Roe vs. Wade. I remember there was a very high profile prosecution of a doctor for performing an abortion in Massachusetts, where I was in college. Then in law school I was very active in a lot of organizations. I wasn’t sure of which direction I actually wanted to go, including prison legal assistance project, the voluntary defenders, the legal aid bureau…and I was also earning my way through law school so I had to do a lot of work.

DS: What would you say the atmosphere was like on campus back then, with all the issues that were being contended with, how would you describe it?

NS: I don’t think it was that different than the atmosphere on law school campuses now, David, which is to say that even at the height—and statistics I have read have verified this—even at the height of the student activist movement, it was still a fairly small percentage of students who were really engaged, especially in law school. In college there were more involved in the anti-war movement, but in law school most people were just trying to get good grades and good jobs. I don’t say that at all disparagingly. There was a core of people who gravitated toward these extracurricular activities and back in those days you got no course credit at all. Now most law schools give course credit, so you would have to do all of that on ‘’top’’ of your full time course load. And if you can believe it, the Harvard Law Review, which I was also on, you got no course credit for that. What I’m saying is that I wasn’t really linked to the law school, per se; my experience was—and I cut a lot of classes, quite frankly—my experience was going to the legal aid bureau, going to the voluntary defenders office, meeting with my clients, doing that kind of work. Law school classes and exams was just something I had to get through to get my degree. But I didn’t feel myself so connected to Harvard Law School as an entity.

Religion in schools

DS: You had mentioned that one of the things that affected you with your family was seeing points of view not being allowed to be expressed. Many religious conservatives would say that the ACLU opposes having their points of view in the schools. How would you respond?

NS: That is absolutely untrue, but I know that myth and distortion of what we have advocated and what the Supreme Court has held, there are so many myths and misrepresentations about that, and the truth is that every individual, whether student or teacher, should be completely free in a nondiscriminatory process, to express whatever ideas or beliefs he or she has as long as it is consistent with the overall educational mission. So just as it would be inappropriate for a student to stand up in the middle of math class and say, “Join the ACLU!” it would be inappropriate for a student to stand up in the middle of math class and say, “Join the Hare Krishna or the Christian Coalition!” But in forums where it is appropriate for individuals to discuss ideas openly, such as extracurricular periods, lunch periods, maybe there are times before or after the school day, then every viewpoint should be welcome equally, whether it be pro-religion, anti-religion, any religion, any politics, you name it.

DS: So there isn’t any opposition to having religious groups meeting inside of public schools?

NS: No.

DS: Would you defend someone’s right to have a religious meeting in a public school?

NS: Yes. But I have to add a qualification and stress that the ACLU’s position here has been reflected not only under Supreme Court decisions under the First Amendment religious freedom, freedom of speech and nonestablishment of religion, but also through a federal statute that was passed in the 1980’s called the Equal Access Act. It basically sets out the general principle I have stated, but the important qualification is that you always have to look at all the facts of the circumstances. If, for example, in a particular school there is theoretically an open forum and all student groups are free to meet, but in fact the only student groups that are meeting are religious or of a particular religion, you know enough law to know that the conclusion could be that a reasonable observer could look at as school endorsement of religion and not a school endorsement of an open forum. You always have to look to see that the teachers, government and public school officials aren’t channeling the students. But if it is truly open and not an endorsement, then let a thousand flowers bloom. Religious, non-religious and anti-religious.

Religious symbols

DS: The ACLU has been involved in removing religious symbology from the public forum. Can you state your views on that?

NS: I completely support all the cases we’ve taken in this area, a lot of which have to do with allowing religious symbology in public places. The law is a little complicated so that it is very easy for politicians and demagogues to distort it. The key principle that unites the whole First Amendment including non-establishment and free exercise of religion and free speech, is that the government has to remain neutral. The government can not squelch certain ideas because it disagrees with the ideas, and with respect to religion government can neither favor religion nor disfavor religion. It may not promote or encourage religion on the one hand, it may not stifle or discriminate against religion on the other hand. So, when you are talking about a public place, it all depends on what kind of public place it is. If it is a public school that is having a public forum where the individual students and voluntary students groups can meet, then the school is simply providing a neutral forum. It is not endorsing religion if it allows religious groups to meet. Likewise, if you are talking about a public park. Religious groups have the right to meet in public parks to pray, to give sermons in public parks; in fact, if you look at every case that the Supreme Court has decided on these issues, the ACLU has always been in support of the rights of religious groups and a lot of the early free speech cases happened to be on behalf of religious groups who were seeking to use the streets, the sidewalks, the parks, other public forums to convey their messages.

DS: Can you give an example of a religious symbology case where the ACLU supported religious freedom?

NS: We’ve had a number of cases around the country where city governments had government-run cemeteries. They would not allow families to put their religious symbols on top of their graves, and the ACLU has consistently come to the support of the religious freedom right to do that. In fact, one of my favorite cases in this general vein is just because of what the lady calls herself. In Virginia we have a client who calls herself “The Lone Ranger of the Manger”. She goes around at Christmastime to every park where people are allowed to put up whatever symbols they want, and she wants to have her own nativity scene to put up. A number of city governments have told her she can’t do that because they say it violates the separation of church and state; they misunderstand.

How the ACLU is misrepresented by politicians and televangelists

DS: Do people misconstrue or misunderstand your work and what you have argued for or against?

NS: Not only our work, but they misconstrue what the Supreme Court has said. It’s hard for people to tell, because those who want to say the ACLU is hostile to religion distort what we have done, distort what the Supreme Court has done, and then they are surprised that government officials believe them and say, “Oh no, no religious display is allowed at all, or no student is allowed to make a religious statement,” which is not the case. It’s so ironic. I’ve debated Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell before he died, and they would constantly say, “Little children are not allowed to pray in school; you’re not allowed to talk about religious subjects in school.” Teachers are listening to them, and so somebody says, “I want to have a student prayer group” and teachers say, “Oh no, you can’t, the Supreme Court has said you can’t—“
Nadine Strossen by David Shankbone.jpg

DS: —and the ACLU said—

NS: That’s right! Right! But it’s actually Jerry Falwell who told them that the ACLU is doing that, and it couldn’t be further from the truth! In fairness, I have to say, if what you are talking about is a government-sponsored or promoted display, those were the cases where we do oppose it and with the support of the Supreme Court. To take a well-known recent example, the state judiciary building of Alabama, and the Chief Justice brings in this ten ton 10 Commandments—

DS: —Roy Moore?

NS: —Yes, Roy Moore, and says that it’s because God is the ultimate law-giver. He’s not saying it’s because this is the foundation of American law. He’s endorsing a religious message, and that’s a different thing. In his own chambers, we would totally defend his right to do it. If there’s a public park where people are allowed to put their own displays, we would totally defend his right to do it. I don’t think it’s that complicated, you just have to look at the context: who, where, why, what message are they promoting? It really comes down to crystallizing the whole topic into a key question that Sandra Day O’Connor—hardly a flaming radical—formulated that has been adopted by the majority to ask whether the government is honoring its obligation to be neutral toward religion neither favoring nor disfavoring. You look at the contested action and you ask, “Would a reasonable observer see this as government support for religion?”

DS: When does a symbol become historical and when is it intrinsically religious? For instance, a community that was once a mission and they have had a large cross on a mountaintop that to them is more historical marker.

NS: That’s the question. With a lot of legal questions—and since you are a lawyer, or almost a lawyer, right?

DS: Well, two years.

NS: Two-thirds of a lawyer [Laughs]

DS: Almost a slave.

NS: Oh boy, that was 3/5ths, right? [Laughs]

DS: Yes, 3/5ths! [Laughs]

NS: It is what a lawyer calls a mixed question of fact and law, but there is an ultimate legal criterion that is really a factual question. That’s what her question is, and what the Court now asks: “Would a reasonable observer who is familiar with the overall context, history and circumstances, see that as promoting a religious message or not?” And I don’t know the answer to that; it all depends on the particular facts and circumstances. The way you describe it, it sounds as if a reasonable observer would not see it as a promotion of religion.

DS: That’s always the problem in law: who is that reasonable observer? Someone from the community, someone who has just moved into the community?

NS: Exactly! You get that in a lot of areas of law, David. I think another one that my students in my free speech class were talking about yesterday is obscenity. That’s defined according to contemporary community standards. Is it patently offensive? Does it appeal to the prurient interest in sex? Does it have serious value? Reasonable people can disagree about that, and that’s what our jury system and our legal system are for, and there are some cases where reasonable people will disagree, no doubt about it. But I think the principle is right, if it were up to me I can’t think of a better way to try to maintain fidelity to all of the values—necessarily there’s a tension when the government is trying to walk this neutral line. It goes on this side and it is supporting religion, which is improper; it goes to that side and it is oppressing religion, which is improper.

DS: Going back to when you have debated religious conservatives and they make the charge that what the ACLU is working toward is no religion in schools, and you can’t have a prayer group, do you think there is a conscious motivation to misrepresent what you have done and want, or is it a misunderstanding?

NS: It depends upon about whom you are speaking. For some people it is a definite distortion, because I know that they know better. But in some cases it is literally a good faith misunderstanding in part because of the deliberate distortions that they are hearing, including from top government officials. Ronald Reagan said in speeches that the Supreme Court has told little children that they may not pray. Many people more recently, including [former] Congressman Istook, who regularly introduced an amendment to the Constitution to, as he says, “Restore prayer and religious freedom.” Every couple of years he gives a speech—I read the most recent version—in which he says the Supreme Court has “removed religion from the public square!” Surely you’ve heard that. It’s ironic when you compare our country to Western European countries; they think religion—and it is literally true—that religion is thriving in the public square here in a way that is off the charts compared to other developed industrialized nations. I think that’s wonderful! I think religion has been a very positive force in America. As with everything, there is a good and a bad; but certainly on the issues I care about, religion has been a driving force behind civil rights, the abolition of slavery, the death penalty. No matter what the religious group is, including the so-called religious right—which in some contexts will attack the ACLU, and in others work very closely with the ACLU. Post 9/11 we worked very closely with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the American Family Association, and others, who are very traditional conservatives and very suspicious of federal government power concentrated in the executive branch. Very protective of individual privacy. They are completely with the ACLU in opposing Real ID and opposing a lot of the post-9/11 dragnet measures. And let’s not forget that the free exercise of religion, they know the ACLU is in their corner and on the professional level we work together, lobbying. Years ago, when the Supreme Court gutted the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, I testified in Congress in support of something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that every single religious denomination under the sun was on our side. The ACLU was the spearhead of that legislation. So there’s a difference between what group’s professional staff members are doing when it comes to Supreme Court arguments and Congressional testimony versus what their fund raising letters say, or what their radio programs say.
I remember years ago when Michael Kinsley was the co-host of Crossfire and I was debating Jerry Falwell, and he interrupted and said, “Come on, guys, you know you need each other; your direct mail campaigns need each other.” [Laughs]

The abortion debate

DS: Don’t you think the way both sides go about engaging each other harms America? Take the partial-birth abortion Supreme Court case. Did you read Justice Stevens’ New York Times interview with Jeff Rosen?

NS: Yes, I read that.

DS: He said it was a silly decision that wasn’t particularly important—

NS: I don’t remember that—he said that?!

DS: Yes. He said it was, in the end, not a particularly important case.

NS: Oh, I totally disagree with that, unfortunately, it’s a very important decision. I’m wondering whether he had a strategic reason for making that point; maybe he is trying to get people to implement it in a not-serious way?

DS: He was talking about in terms of the effect, that it didn’t have much of an effect because there were other legal alternatives to that particular method of abortion.

NS: That’s not what the medical profession says, so even if you are talking about a tiny percentage of women, it’s still that there are some women—and every single medical organization said this—the American Medical Association, the College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Nurses Association, that for some cases this is the necessary method in order to either preserve the woman’s life or preserve her future fertility. So the only option they have under this decision is for the doctor to leave the operating room and run to court to get an injunction because the Supreme Court said—the Court acknowledged that in the opinion and said but those women can bring in an “As Applied” challenge, that they aren’t going to strike down the entire statute on its face. But realistically, is that going to happen? And what doctor is going to take the risk of criminal prosecution? I beg, with the greatest respect for him, I really beg to differ.

DS: The question I have is that on its face it was deciding one particular issue in the abortion debate, but a lot of pro-choice organizations paint this as, “We are now getting ready to ban abortion; this is the first step on what might be a short road—“

NS: A slippery slope argument.

DS: Yes, a slippery slope. Isn’t it almost the same thing when the evangelicals say, “They are coming for your prayer, your kids aren’t going to be able to pray or allow God in schools.”

NS: I understand what you are saying, David, but I think—

DS: Is it healthy for us to be ringing these alarm bells every time one nuance in the argument gets addressed?

NS: There’s a difference between predicting something is going to happen that might be an inaccurate prediction and making factual misstatements about what has already happened and what the law is. There’s a real difference. So I think the analogy would only be apt if somebody said, “The Supreme Court already has overturned Roe vs. Wade and brought back back-alley abortions.” That would be the counterpart to saying, “The Supreme Court has removed religion from the public schools and the public sphere.” I have not heard any pro-choice—

DS: But let’s say the Christians give you that, and they say, “This is just the first step and what they ultimately want is not to have the word God said anywhere in the public square.”

NS: But that’s also counter-factual because if they looked at the ACLU’s policy statements and they looked at our briefs, and they looked at our legislative testimony, they would see that we are constantly defending the rights of people to say God in the public square. Every day we have cases where we are defending street preachers and people trying to baptize in the rivers…

DS: Whereas in the abortion argument it is a stated goal to bring about the end of Roe v. Wade.

NS: Yes. Yes. But it’s interesting—I think as a responsible advocate you do have to read between the lines, not only what the Supreme Court says it is doing, but what it actually does, and here you not only have to rely upon those who agree with the result, but those who disagree with the result. In the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Case, no less an anti-abortion proponent than Justice Scalia joined by Justice Thomas, in his separate opinion, chided the majority for not coming out and explicitly saying that they had overturned not Roe vs. Wade, but the prior partial-birth abortion ban case. Remember there had been one six years before from Nebraska, and that’s why every lower court to consider this said that based upon that precedent this law is indistinguishable, and that’s why we are striking down this federal law. The result here got a majority, but there were two separate opinions, one that was written by Kennedy and joined by the new justices; and Scalia and Thomas supported the result. But they had a separate opinion that said, “You are not being honest, you have effectively overturned that earlier case, why don’t you come out and say so?” And the campaign finance reform case, same thing. They said they were not overturning their earlier decision that upheld McCain-Feingold, and Scalia had a very quotable line where he was making the point he made with many earlier decisions, that he supported the result, but he was saying that they are not being honest about how far-reaching the result is. This one was quoted a lot in the press; he said, “It is faux judicial restraint, which is really judicial obfuscation.” So as a responsible analyst and advocate, you have to look behind the lines. Many are what we now know as landmark decisions, but they didn’t tell us they were landmark decisions, right? The old Commerce Clause cases. But when the Supreme Court overturned the narrow view of the Commerce Clause in 1937, it didn’t say it was making new law. It paid lip service to the same old tests. But lo-and-behold, it came out differently.

Judicial activism

DS: When you hear the phrase “judicial activism” what comes to your mind?

NS: I think of a judge who is actively enforcing the Constitution and living up to his or her responsibility and oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution, even in unpopular cases.

DS: So you believe in the living Constitution?

NS: I don’t know I can say what is a living Constitution. The Constitution itself contains provisions that on their face call for interpretation that has to take into account evolving developments in society. Why did they talk about cruel and unusual punishments when they could have simply said—

DS: “These are cruel and unusual punishments”

NS: –Exactly. So that there was a conscious choice on the part of the framers to leave it to future generations to pour specific content into the open-ended values they were endorsing. So to me that’s being faithful to the text and intent of the framers not to have hide-bound Eighteenth Century interpretation.

DS: Do you think there is a right to privacy in the Constitution?

NS: I think that the Constitution is a document that bestows limited powers upon any government that was intended to have limited powers. Unless the government is given power to invade certain individual rights, then that power does not exist. So to me the question is not does the Constitution grant people a right to privacy, it’s does the Constitution grant the government the power to invade an individual’s inherent and pre-existing right to privacy. Let us not forget that the founding document of the country, the Declaration of Independence, as we all know, says we are all born with certain inalienable rights that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. So the purpose of government was not to grant us rights, which we already had by virtue of being human, the purpose of government was to protect those rights. If you look at the preamble of the Constitution, which is implementing those ideals that are set out in the Declaration, it talks about one of the prime purposes being to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. It doesn’t say grant liberty.

Capital punishment and criminal justice

DS: What argument for capital punishment do you think is most compelling for it?

NS: If I had to be a devil’s advocate… Boy. I-I-you’re really tongue-tying me, which is novel. I would say just on a Constitutional level there is a pretty strong argument, textually, which is that the Due Process Clause of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment, says that no state or the federal government shall deny any person of life, liberty or property, without Due Process of law, which suggests that the government may deprive somebody of life, as long as it lies with Due Process of law. So I think that is a pretty strong textual argument that it was contemplated by the framers. But, if you are going to make a moral argument or policy argument, I would really come up short on that because every study that has been done shows that it is fraught with all kinds of discrimination, racial discrimination as we know; discrimination based upon wealthy or poverty; geographical discrimination, depending upon what the polices are of the prosecutors in a certain jurisdiction. There’s no evidence that it deters anybody who commits homicide. So I can’t see any policy justification. I don’t believe that it makes us safer, I don’t think it deters crime. I think it is inherently inconsistent with human dignity or possible rehabilitation, which is I guess the word that they use.

DS: The criminal justice system is a rehabilitative system?

NS: That’s not what I think it is now.

DS: Is that what it should be?

NS: I think the purpose of the criminal justice system should be—yeah, that would be great, if it could be done. But its primary purpose is to promote safety, to reduce crime.

DS: How does it do that?

NS: Believe me, I’m not an apologist for the criminal justice system. I think it’s in a terrible state, in part because quite a few years ago the official policy, at least at the federal level, and the states certainly seem to be in the avant-garde on this, was to not be focused on rehabilitation but to be focused on retribution. The federal sentencing guidelines, I believe, explicitly endorse a retributive purpose for the criminal justice system. I disagree with that.

Decriminalization of drugs and suicide

DS: Are you an active member of NORML?

NS: I don’t know. I certainly support their goals and I have spoken at their conventions.

DS: Do you believe in the decriminalization of marijuana?

NS: Absolutely, and everything. For adults.

DS: Can you give me your case for that?

NS: Sure, it’s official ACLU policy, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I think it was well summarized by one of our board members years ago when the crack cocaine epidemic was starting, and somebody said we should re-examine our policy which opposed the criminalization of substances for adults. Maybe we should re-examine it in light of this new dangerous drug. And we did re-examine and unanimously re-affirmed. In the course of that debate, one Board member said, “We believe that every consenting adult should have the right to imbibe, ingest, inhale or insert whatever he or she wants into his or her own body. It’s a matter of individual freedom of choice.” Does that mean they should do it? Not necessarily, not any more than somebody should smoke or drink or eat McDonald’s hamburgers.

DS: Should suicide be legal?

NS: Absolutely. The idea of government making determinations about how you end your life, forcing you, which could be considered cruel and unusual punishment in certain circumstances, and Justice Stevens in a very interesting opinion in a right-to-die raised the analogy. But you said before you turned on the tape that you typically ask people how they would want to die, which is very interesting. I mean, of the zillions of questions I have been asked, nobody has ever asked me that! It’s very rare I am asked a question that I have never been asked before.

DS: So how would you like to die?

NS: Well, the first thing that occurred to me was: I want to have the choice. That was the very first thing that occurred to me, because I know how through personal experiences, through vicarious experiences, through reading the complaints in our law suits where we have challenged the absolute restrictions on compassion and dying, people are essentially tortured. And I don’t want that to happen. And I don’t want my loved ones tortured by watching that happen.

DS: You wouldn’t want a Terri Schiavo situation?

NS: That was an ACLU case; we represented her husband there. It has to be consenting, but there are measures we can take, and precautions we can take, so there it should be regulated. I say the same thing about drugs. You wouldn’t want to have regulation the way we do for food and alcohol, but absolute prohibition is completely inhumane and counter to the most fundamental autonomy of who you are.

DS: So you have the choice, what is your choice?

NS: My choice would be to take a sleeping pill, I guess, or maybe morphine would have the same effect, to peacefully pass from this Earth when I have made a decision that I can no longer live in this state of comfort and dignity that makes life meaningful to me.

War and threats to humanity

DS: What do you think is the greatest threat to humanity right now?

NS: By that do you mean human existence, or something more subtle?

DS: However you interpret the question.

NS: The greatest threat to humanity… Boy. The reason why I am pausing is I live so much of my life looking at one set of threats, so I’m not usually asked the comparative question. See, you’re again getting me out of my box. I’m usually asked what is the greatest danger to civil liberties, and I don’t have so much hubris to necessarily say, “The greatest threat to humanity is threats to our freedom.” I guess I would have to take it as the most literal threat. For many years I managed to perhaps delude myself that there wasn’t a serious threat of nuclear holocaust, and I don’t think that anymore. I’m very afraid with reports of Iran having nuclear capabilities, or even individual terrorist groups or terrorist cells having access to weapons of mass destruction. That really scares me.
Nadine Strossen 4 by David Shankbone.jpg

DS: How has the Iraq War affected your world view?

NS: It’s made me very concerned about—even more concerned than I always have been—about the future of the world and the future of this country, because I think it’s not only the war itself, but obviously the ripple effects, the insurgency, the recruitment for Al-Qaida and terrorist groups. The disenchantment with what I thought and think our country should stand for, but in the world it no longer does stand for: human rights, democracy and justice.

DS: Have you seen a precipitous drop?

NS: It’s catastrophic. The damage. I’m not speaking as a civil libertarian, I’m speaking as a member on the Council on Foreign Relations, looking at what my colleagues in the international human rights movement are telling me, and they meet with the most brutal dictators who say, “I’m just doing what George Bush is doing.”

DS: Ahmadinejad came to Columbia and brought that argument up.

NS: Yeah, right. So we have squandered our moral legitimacy, we have squandered the legitimacy of the whole international human rights regime post World War II, of democracy, and as I always tell my students, once you lose your credibility or people’s respect for your integrity, it may not be irreparable, but it takes such a long time to restore that, and ultimately our national security depends on that. So I’m really fearful. I’m ultimately optimistic in the long run, but it’s a longer run than it would have been pre-9/11, and not because of the terrorist attacks, but because of our reaction to the terrorist attacks. And the use of that to get us into Iraq, and the erosion of trust—this is something Hagel was talking about—the erosion of trust toward government on the part of the American people, and particularly younger generations. It was really corrosive.

DS: It’s surprising that Hagel gave that criticism since it is his party that has instituted the fear of government into our culture. Such as Reagan’s famous line that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

NS: These parties are so heterogeneous, believe me, I would not want to be associated with a single one. Even the ACLU does things I personally disagree with, so I would not want guilt by association. If the party platform reflected [Hagel’s] views, it would be a different party than it is now.

DS: When I interviewed Gay Talese, I asked him how the Iraq War affected him and he said it had not. He said, “I wish it did!” He said he doesn’t feel anything and that he doesn’t think anyone else does, either. He feels you can’t have a war affect people unless you have conscription.

NS: I totally agree with that, I completely agree with that. Charlie Rangel, as you probably know, I completely agree with that. The ACLU has always opposed the draft, going back to our founding, as in our view being inconsistent with the Thirteenth Amendment of involuntary servitude, but our fall-back position has always been, having lost on that argument, that if you are going to have a draft then it may not be discriminatory; it should apply to women as well as men. We took that case to the Supreme Court. You can’t have exemptions for students and others who are privileged, and partly because that’s consistent with Equal Protection guarantees, but that means that the way to enforce fairness: everybody has to be treated equally. To have members of Congress and the Executive Branch send other people’s kids off to war, or other people’s spouses, they are not making a responsible decision if they do not have to feel the cost. I could not agree with that more strongly. The result might be then we would then have no war. It’s the same thing with all the deprivations of liberty in the war on terror, if I may say so. All those surveys that say, “Are you willing to give up freedom to enhance national security?” The reason people say yes is they are willing to give up somebody ELSE’S freedom. Okay, so take it away from the Muslims…

DS: But they see it as voluntary service. It’s a voluntary army.

NS: I wish that it really were. I think nobody who volunteered for it was volunteering for the tours of duty—even forget the danger they are facing—but the extended time, it’s off the charts. Chuck Hagel today gave us the exact details, so don’t quote me on this because he’s an expert and I’m not, but the order of magnitude used to be 7 months, but now it’s 15 months, or 18 months, or 21 months, and then it’s being doubled and you are not able to have leave in between. So, they volunteered for one type of duty in terms of the amount of time, but they are getting something entirely different from that. Number two is query how realistic the choice is for the people who are going into it if they don’t have many other options—or any other options—to get an education, to get a job, to get the skills and the training—

DS: –That’s what Talese said. Senator Brownback told me he is against conscription, and it’s interesting that the people who are most for the war are the people who are most for a voluntary army.

NS: Maybe they believe that those would be the people who are most highly-motivated. I mean in theory, you would see that advantage.

DS: Rangel’s bent is that if people were actually fighting in the wars, or forced to fight, that it would bring public opinion against the war.

NS: I think in terms of Constitutional Law terms, but remember that famous old case by John Marshall, McCulloch v. Maryland, where the state of Maryland was not allowed to tax the Bank of the United States, and he set out a principle that is a pervasive equal protection principle, that those who are going to bear the burden should have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making. This is the flip side of it; you may not impose the burden unless you are sharing in the responsibility. There’s an accountability, a reciprocity that State A may not impose a tax on State B is the same thing as saying, people who are not fighting the war may not send off those who are.

Should George Bush be impeached?

DS: Do you think George Bush should be impeached?

NS: I think there is a case for him to be impeached, but I don’t think it would be a good idea. The reason I say there is a case because partly under the Constitution it’s high crimes and misdemeanors, which are not defined and the latest precedent we have is having a blow job in the Oval Office and lying about it is considered to be a high crime and misdemeanor. Well, Bush, has clearly lied to Congress, the American People, to the media about much more serious infractions and violations of the Constitution. He’s had a view that as Commander-in-Chief he can do whatever he wants, that he’s above the law, that he doesn’t have to abide by the laws that are duly passed by Congress. In one breath he is signing them, and in another breath he is saying he doesn’t have to follow them. So, I think if what Clinton did can be considered a high crime and misdemeanor then what Bush did could be.
Do I think it would be a good idea to impeach him? I think it would be a terrible idea to impeach him. Among other reasons, I think it would have the effect of placing disproportionate responsibility on to him when a lot of the blame for the violations I’m talking about rests in the hands of Congress. Congress did not have to vote for the Patriot Act, as they did almost unanimously in the Senate. Congress did not have to expand his domestic wire-tapping power this summer, even beyond what he was initially doing in his secret program. Congress did not have to roll over and play dead with respect to torture and rendition and Guantanamo and all the other human rights disasters. They really bear a lot of responsibility and we should not be letting them off the hook. By going after Bush, it deflects responsibility from Congress, it deflects responsibility from the courts, which have been issuing a lot of bad decisions, I think. It also deflects responsibility from the Democrats. It makes it too much of a partisan issue. There is bipartisan responsibility here. For that reason I strongly oppose it. I’m not speaking for the ACLU, I know some people in the ACLU would like to see it.

DS: You just don’t think it would be productive.

NS: I don’t think it would advance civil liberties.

Gun rights

DS: Where do you stand on the Second Amendment and the rights of gun owners? Are the rights accorded to well-armed militias, or is it accorded to unfettered rights of individuals to own guns?

NS: I actually don’t think in reality that the difference is that profound, because when you look at the big debate, and you stated it well, does the government protect the individual right to bear arms, does it only protect a collective right through the state militias? Let’s assume for the sake of argument it does protect an individual right, it is no more absolute than freedom of speech or any other right in the Constitution. No right is absolute; the government is always allowed to restrict the right if it can satisfy Constitutional strict scrutiny and show the restriction is narrowly tailored to promote a goal of compelling importance. Ironically, the very first federal appellate court in recent history to hold that there was an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, the Fifth Circuit, then went on to nevertheless uphold the particular restriction that was being challenged! Mainly, that the guy was under a restraining order for domestic abuse and he wasn’t allowed to possess a gun. The court said the Second Amendment protects your right, but this regulation doesn’t violate your right. So I don’t think it makes a big difference. And conversely, to say it’s not an individual right doesn’t mean that gun owners are without all rights, and the ACLU has often collaborated with gun owners rights organizations to defend their rights to privacy, to defend their rights to due process; in other words, they don’t forfeit all of their Constitutional rights just because they are gun owners, even if the Second Amendment doesn’t protect. So I think it’s more a philosophical debate than it has any practical difference.

Strossen’s philosophy

DS: Last question: what trait do you deplore in people?

NS: I—I’m so tolerant, I really can’t think of one! That’s horrible!

DS: That’s about the best answer I can think of coming from the President of the ACLU! [Laughs]

NS: You know, and people will say…maybe that’s what made me President of the ACLU, I am so tolerant of everything. It’s very hard to get me angry. I always see a silver lining to a cloud, and people will often ask me, “Wasn’t it hard for you when the ACLU defended the rights of the Nazis to march in Skokie?” No! For me, it’s never about the Nazis, it’s about freedom of speech. It’s about the principle. So I tend to see things in a rather abstract level. For every bad piece of mail I receive, I get marriage proposals, love letters, letters of praise! So the question was what trait do I find obnoxious?

DS: That you deplore in people.

NS: I guess I would, in the abstract, I would deplore a lack of tolerance, but even that is hard to say because I sort of admire people who are firm in their convictions. I think it is hard for me to give a categorical answer, because I would just judge each person as an individual. This morning I had a conversation with someone who said to me, and it was a very well-educated and thoughtful person, a doctor, who said, “Do you know any Iranians?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What do you think of them as a group? Do you like them?” I was—I mean, my jaw just dropped! So, I guess I refuse to generalize. I look at everybody as an individual, I look at every trait individual, and I can’t think of one that I would deplore categorically.

DS: Do you deplore any in yourself?

NS: No, I must say I like myself. I deplore specific things I have done in the past, but that is consistent with what I have said in general, that you shouldn’t judge somebody by the worst thing they have ever done.


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May 23, 2007

Student who planned to attend Rev. Jerry Falwell\’s funeral arrested after homemade bombs found in car

Student who planned to attend Rev. Jerry Falwell’s funeral arrested after homemade bombs found in car

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A 19-year-old male student, who is now identified as Mark David Uhl, of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was arrested after authorities were notified from a family member that he had packed his car trunk with home made bombs, and was planning to attend funeral services of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell who passed away on Tuesday last week.

A family member called police at approximately 11:00 p.m. [local time] on Monday evening saying that Uhl “mentioned some explosive devices he had made.”

The funeral services for Falwell were held at the Thomas Road Baptist Church, the first church Falwell founded, at age 22. It was attended by mourners numbering 6,000 in a chapel that exceeded its capacity to host all who came to attend. More room was made for a people who attended the funeral at the university’s basketball arena and football stadium.

Police do not believe that Uhl was going to target the funeral directly. Instead they believe he was going to target protesters of Falwell who were going to attend the funeral. The group is known as the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and believed that Falwell befriended homosexuals, despite the fact that Falwell was against homosexuality.

“I do not believe it was their intent to disrupt the funeral service. We do not believe the Falwells were ever in any danger,” said Terry Gaddy, the Sheriff for Campbell County, Virginia who also said the bombs looked like “napalm” and were about “the size of soda cans.” Gaddy also said there were at least five bombs. Maj. Steve Hutcherson, who is also affiliated with the Campbell County Sheriff said “what appeared to be about six explosive devices” were found and that the “canisters were filled with liquid.”

Several students from the high school Uhl attended, who are believed to have helped make the bombs, are also being questioned by authorities. They are all believed to have been in the same Reserve Officer Training Corps class at Liberty University.

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  • “Televangelist Jerry Falwell dies at age 73” — Wikinews, May 15, 2007



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May 15, 2007

Televangelist Jerry Falwell dies at age 73

Televangelist Jerry Falwell dies at age 73

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell, Christian televangelist

Jerry Falwell was found unresponsive by Ron Godwin, Liberty University’s executive vice president, around 10:45 am ET. He was taken to Lynchburg General Hospital where “CPR efforts were unsuccessful”. As of 2:10 pm ET, during a live press conference, a doctor for the hospital confirmed that Falwell had died of “cardiac arrhythmia, or sudden cardiac death”. Godwin had eaten breakfast with Falwell earlier and stated that he seemed “fine, business as usual.”

Falwell, a controversial minister, suffered from two health conditions in 2005, and had a history of heart illness. Falwell was a leader of the Christian right and was perhaps most well-known for his controversial claims against “liberals”, homosexuals, and Muslims.

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  • “Falwell called for boycott of stores using ‘Happy Holidays’ in place of ‘Merry Christmas'” — Wikinews, December 26, 2005
  • “Falwell’s condition upgraded to “stable”” — Wikinews, March 30, 2005


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September 21, 2005

Tennessee closes down Christian ex-gay camp for treating mental illness without a license

Tennessee closes down Christian ex-gay camp for treating mental illness without a license

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Human Rights – United States
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External links
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  • Wikipedia’s article about human rights.

The Tennessee state Department of Mental Health has ordered the closing of two Ex-gay ministries operated by Love In Action International Inc., a controversial Christian group that counsels gays to give up homosexuality.

The state deemed that Love in Action was “providing housing, meals and personal care for mentally ill patients without a license”. In particular, the state found that Love in Action was dispensing medication to patients without the required license.

Love in Action has repeatedly drawn fire from gay rights groups who view it as preying upon the fears of religious parents in order to make Christian ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson seem more acceptable to the uninformed public. Gay rights advocates view such bootcamp style Ex-Gay camps as “tantamount to child abuse”. [1] [2]

Love In Action is viewed as the first modern Ex-Gay group. Its co-founder John Evans, who abandoned the ministry, feels that it has led to “nothing but shattered lives, depression, and even suicide” and suggests that “The Church has been wrong in the past regarding moral issues and I’m sure there will be more before Christ returns.”

The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association strongly affirm that “homosexuality is not an illness”, “does not require treatment” and “is not changeable.” They feel that “gay men and lesbians who have accepted their sexual orientation positively are better adjusted than those who have not done so,” and warn that people seeking conversion therapy may be doing so under pressure from religious groups. The American public is evenly divided on the question of whether homosexual orientation can be changed, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life [3].



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August 14, 2005

David Lange, former New Zealand prime minister, dies at 63

David Lange, former New Zealand prime minister, dies at 63

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

New Zealanders woke up Sunday to learn of the death of one of their most notable leaders. David Lange was Prime Minister for just five years in the mid-1980s, but his administration left an indelible mark on the nation economically and socially, and also reoriented its foreign policy.

Lange, 63, died of renal failure at 10 p.m. on August 13, a day after his family decided to discontinue artificial life support. He had fought a long battle with multiple ailments. In 2002, he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and incurable blood disorder. Lange defied his doctors’ initial predictions that he had only four months to live, and following a round of chemotherapy, appeared to rally for a time, but in mid-2005 his condition took a sudden turn for the worse. He entered hospital in Auckland in mid July, 2005, to undergo nightly peritoneal dialysis and battled end-stage kidney failure. On August 2, he had his lower-right leg amputated without a general anaesthetic, as a result of diabetes complications.

His declining health resulted in the publication of his memoir My Life being brought forward to August 8. He lived to see this happen and gave his last interview on TV3 to John Campbell the same day.

Lange was first elected to the New Zealand Parliament in a byelection in 1977. As a lawyer, he had built up a personal rapport with his Mangere constituency by representing poor clients free of charge. In less than three years, he was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and, after an initial failed bid for the leadership in 1980, was chosen to replace Bill Rowling as the party leader in 1983. He went on to lead the party to a landslide victory in the general election held on 14 July, 1984, ousting the longtime Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon.

Despite his nominal socialism, he initiated sweeping reforms to deregulate the economy and boost private enterprise, and his was regarded as a government of the left only in name. In foreign policy, however, Lange remained somewhat further to the left: he banned nuclear-armed and powered warships from entering New Zealand’s ports, straining a once-close relationship with the United States. In 1985 he took part in a widely-televised Oxford Union debate [1], arguing for the proposition that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”, in opposition to U.S. televangelist Jerry Falwell.

Lange won the 1987 election by an even greater margin than in 1984, but internal divisions within the Labour Party were weakening his position. Many rank and file members of the party felt that the government’s economic reforms were a betrayal of Labour’s socialist ideology. Attempting to appease the left, Lange fired his right-wing Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, late in 1988. When the party caucus, which under Labour Party rules chooses the cabinet, insisted on his reinstatement to the cabinet in mid-1989, Lange resigned on 8 August, 1989.

Lange was widely regarded as a larger-than-life figure, who was never far from controversy. Once regarded as a fervent Methodist, Lange weathered a storm in 1990 after his decision to leave his first wife, Naomi, and move in with Margaret Pope, whom he later married. In 1996, Lange and Pope had a daughter, Edith; Lange, whose health was already in decline, said that his fondest hope was to see Edith grow up. Responding to questions about whether he was afraid of being “an old dad,” he replied, “No … but I’m afraid of being a dead dad.” He said in another interview the same year, on announcing his final retirement from politics, that he hoped to spend more time with his family, to concentrate on lecturing and writing, “and to grow old.” This last wish did not materialize.

Lange was remembered for his intelligence, his wit, and his loud booming voice. Supporters and opponents alike spoke warmly of Lange. Whether they agreed with his policies or not, they described him as a deeply compassionate man who would be sadly missed.

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