The pretending that follows from faith or dogma is no way to mobilize a progressive movement. — Norman Solomon, 8/18/2008.
Last Monday, January 9, an overflow crowd of eight-score or more gathered at Ukiah’s Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse for an appearance by Phil Donahue. The legendary television host was screening his film and lending support to Northcoast congressional candidate Norman Solomon. The pair visited Ukiah as part of a four-day campaign barnstormer with Solomon seeking supporters in the newly-drawn Second Congressional District, real estate formerly under the stewardship of Congressman Mike Thompson. The district borders Sausalito in the south, includes some portions of Sonoma County and continues through the Emerald Triangle north to the Oregon border.
It is not curious that the appearance of two someones as well-known as Solomon and Donahue would attract a capacity crowd. It is curious that the average age of the attendee was certainly far closer to someone qualifying for senior discount than attending their senior prom. Is the average age of the politically involved citizen going up? If so, is this phenomenon uniquely Mendocino County? Even the local Ukiah Occupy Group seemed to consist primarily of people considerably older than 30.
Nonetheless, the gracefully graying audience was primed to see the candidate and the star, and the two generously and unceremoniously mingled with the crowd — Donahue kindly smiling for photos, Solomon calmly, quietly working the room, supporters happily plunking down shillings for Solomon buttons and bumperstickers.
Donahue’s “Body of War” is a stark, chilling documentary which brings the viewer into the life of former Army Specialist Tomas Young, a paraplegic veteran of the Iraq war who enlisted two days after 9/11 on the day President Bush stood on The Pile and told the world we were going to kick the evildoers’ asses.
An outspoken critic of the war, Donahue was summarily handed his hat in early 2003 by his employer, MSNBC (aka General Electric). A leaked memo from the station brass stated, “Donahue delights in putting anti-Bush voices on the air.”
Donahue comments on his MSNBC ouster to the AVA. “Our program was getting great ratings and deserved to be nourished and promoted, not cancelled. But at least they took some hits after they did it,” he smiles, sardonically. “My hope,” he concludes, “is that by airing this film, we will learn never again to allow a president to lie us into a war.”
Tomas Young met Donahue in Walter Reed Medical Center where Young was recuperating from his injuries. Something about Young affected Donahue deeply. He enlisted co-director Ellen Spiro and together they crafted a gritty documentary chronicling the daily life of Young, and by extension the thousands of other American veterans living out their days in beds and wheelchairs — catheterized, infertile, impotent, unemployable, downing fistfuls of medication and receiving insufficient or substandard psychological and medical care for the daily sacrifices they endure — unspeakable disfigurements and disabilities incurred in service to their country.
Young was in his early 20s when he enlisted, the son of a bonafide Dittohead. It was 2004. Young had been deployed to Sadr City for only five days when he took a stray bullet, rendering him permanently paralyzed from the chest down. After returning home, he became an activist, joining Iraq Veterans Against the War, attending demonstrations and using what he had left — his disability and his voice — to encourage supporters of the war to take another hard look, as he had, at why we invaded Iraq in the first place.
Though Monday night’s attendees came to see Donahue and Solomon, it was Young that guests took home with them. Pale and feisty, Young resembled a Fort Bragg logger’s son or that kid who changes your tires at Big O.
The film injected another disturbing element. Interspersed with the Young’s personal saga were snippets of the 2002 footage of Congress debating the still-controversial House Joint Resolution 114: The Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces Against Iraq.
The historic passage of this resolution is probably the most significant congressional vote of our lifetime and certainly one of the most important in the country’s history. It will be ten years this year that the House of Representatives and the Senate, in a 77-23 landslide, passed the resolution which transferred the constitutional power to declare war in Iraq from the Congress to the President.
Donahue’s film shows dozens of clips of Republican lawmakers employing masterfully scripted talking points to urge passage of the resolution. The rhetoric was written by the Rovian-chaired spinmeister group WHIG: The White House Iraq Group — a super group with a superstar lineup including Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, Andrew Card, Condee, Colin, Scooter — the whole darned family.
The WHIGs branded the war, successfully selling it to Congress and the American people. “The Smoking Gun That Could Become The Mushroom Cloud,” “The War on Terror” and “WMDs” became WHIG soundbytes, repeated mantra-like by the Bush Administration and their Republican minions during the debates. Just in case we might have forgotten, Donahue cuts and pastes these deadly platitudes into the film — the incantations of a coordinated Congressional cabal, Senators spouting the same lies from the same songsheet resulting in the shameful passage of Resolution 114.
Fittingly and ironically, the voice recording the actual votes cast on that actual day was not possessed by a human being. It was a computer-generated, Steven Hawking-esque silicon-based lifeform. In the film, just as in life, The Voice dispassionately takes the Congressional roll call and fatefully records their votes for posterity.
It was chilling to view the Congressional debate again after all these years. Seeing it juxtaposed with Young’s personal struggles and overlaid atop President Obama’s current “Mission Accomplished” moment as our troops leave Iraq was a discomfiting reminder of who and what, as a country, we sold out to on the day that historic vote was cast.
“I thought we’d never go to Iraq,” Donahue tells the AVA. “But there we were — a massive blunder accomplished by lying. They thought we would lose face if we ended it. That’s the only reason we continued. What took us six minutes to get into will take us 60 years to get out of,” he continues. “We’re becoming a warrior nation.”
The pairing of this film and this candidate is no accident. In an election where frontrunner Jared Huffman is considered by many liberal Democrats to be plenty liberal enough for them to be elected, Solomon must gather every progressive vote he can find — inspiring, coordinating and enlivening both energized and disenchanted voters in this geographically and ideologically vast district.
The award-winning journalist, novelist and political outsider is certainly no career politician. Not yet, anyway. “He passes the smell test when it comes to the ability to think, talk and not appear completely crazy. That’s how low I set the bar these days,” commented one cynical guest. There is, along with loud, long and enthusiastic applause for Solomon, a palpable sense of healthy caution — the same feelings of caution expressed by Solomon in his above quote about progressive movements, while he was a 2008 California Obama delegate.
Solomon’s platform espouses support for living wage jobs, strengthening small business, defending Social Security, supporting single payer health care and Medi-Cal, restriction of GMO products into the marketplace, opposition to Cap and Trade, a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and opposition to offshore oil drilling. He supports legalization of cannabis and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. With some exceptions, his opponent is likely in agreement, at least in principle, with a goodly percentage of Solomon’s platform. It is not issues that will decide this election. It is the ability of Norman Solomon to draw voters to him because they believe that unlike the majority of his potential congressional colleagues, Solomon will not be steered away from his core principles.
We know far more about what Solomon thinks than we do about all of the Republican presidential candidates for at least two election cycles. Solomon’s nationally syndicated weekly column, Media Beat ran for 17 years. Readers looked forward to his annual “P.U.-litzer” prizes where Solomon would recognize “America’s smelliest media achievements.” His criticism of mainstream media has always been incisive and unabashed.
The event on the House floor Wednesday afternoon was monumental — the first major congressional debate about US military operations in Afghanistan since lawmakers authorized the invasion of that country in autumn 2001. But, as Rep. Patrick Kennedy noted with disgust on Wednesday, the House press gallery was nearly empty. He aptly concluded: “It's despicable, the national press corps right now.”
Sure enough, the Thursday edition of the New York Times had no room for the historic debate on its front page, which did have room for a large Starbucks ad across the bottom. — Norman Solomon, AlterNet, March 11, 2010
How about this observation from 12 years ago? Déjà vu all over again?
Tragically, the continued silence from Democrats has left the populist field open to the likes of Patrick Buchanan, who pairs his attacks on Wall Street with odious scapegoating of poor people, blacks, immigrants and gays. The near-paralysis of independent thought among Democratic politicians- as they march lock step behind Bill Clinton — parallels the endless streams of conventional wisdom emanating from major media. The current lack of substantive debate inside the Democratic Party serves as an excuse for the narrow range of discourse in news media — and vice versa. — Norman Solomon, AlterNet, April 26, 2000
And now Solomon is jumping into the fray. In person, he exudes a sense of gentle openness and quiet enthusiasm. He is not a lifetime politician, does not appear or publicly present like a “canned-didate,” and is quickly learning how to succinctly articulate his message. Perhaps, like most writers, he communicates his thoughts more completely with his pen, but his spoken words must now resonate with his written ones, and it is a certainty that supporters will expect nothing less from him. Norman Solomon is going to be held to a high standard — a standard that all in politics should aspire to.
“Genuine progressives can win,” he tells the AVA. “We have done far more difficult things than run successful elections. I understand the ambivalence of progressives about power and what it does, but we have to combine vital elements of strategy and resources,” he continues.
“This new District provides an opening for a North Coast progressive initiative,” he told the AVA. Solomon is an avid supporter of the Progressive Caucus — the largest body of its kind within the House Democratic Caucus, boasting about 75 members, including outgoing rep Lynne Woolsey. If elected, Solomon fully intends to continue her legacy as a Caucus member. The head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, has given Solomon his endorsement. “Senator Thompson can never bring himself to join the Progressive Caucus,” Solomon continues. “He is an official Blue Dog. I’m not surprised he has endorsed my opponent.” Jared Huffman states that if elected he would “consider” joining the Progressive Caucus.
The titles of a few of his books: “The Power of Babble: The Politician's Dictionary of Buzzwords and Doubletalk for Every Occasion,” “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News,” or “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” imply that if anyone could, Solomon would recognize and fastidiously avoid the pitfalls of overpromising and over spinning prior to and following his election.
It is Solomon’s track record of independent thinking and willingness to challenge his own party leaders that are making people sit up and listen. Though he is a master at articulately pointing the finger, it is his intrinsic optimism that provides his motivation to run for office. “We have tremendous momentum right now,” Solomon tells the AVA. “This effort takes awareness and action. One or the other will not get the job done, and we struggle to combine the two. But if we take actions not rooted in the depth of reality, our actions won’t get us very far.”
“The Occupy Movement shone a light on the existing awareness of societal issues, and modeled how to take action. Our campaign is about energizing social movements — not only occupying a seat in Congress, but also learning that we must build coalitions more effectively,” Solomon continues.
Stalwart county Democratic Party leaders Jim Mastin, Phil Baldwin and Steve Antler acted as hosts and coordinators for the evening. “It’s really exciting to have a candidate of this caliber to represent the North Coast on issues of extreme importance to us,” said Mastin to the AVA. Mastin is not enthused about the shape of the new district. “There is now only one voice for the North Coast. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, it’s troublesome. We’ve got less representation now, so we’ve got to make the best of it and get the best people to Washington,” he continued.
Was it the drive to Ukiah and the late night that kept some of the Democratic Party’s other prominent movers and shakers from attending the event, or was their absence an indication of a party split, with Blue Dogs already dancing the Huffman Hustle?
Huffman is unlikely to harness the Donahue/Sean Penn star power already sparkling within Solomon’s campaign, but other Big Democrats including Senators Thompson and Feinstein, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Patty Berg, Assembly Member Wes Chesbro and Virginia Strom-Martin are endorsing Huffman. Supervisor Dan Hamburg changed his party affiliation to support Solomon, perhaps to encourage other Green Party members to support Solomon in the primary. Judging by the size of the crowd at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, interest in Solomon is growing, and the race may end up being closer than Huffman likes.
Huffman, who has a left-of-center track record was recently called out by Solomon for accepting contributions from Sonoma County lobbyist Darius Anderson of Platinum Advisors — a sizable lobbying firm with a lot of Bay Area clout. It is the articulation of these and other issues where Solomon hopes to distinguish himself from his opponent. “My opponent would support the closure of Diablo Canyon and San Onofre Nuclear Power Plants if studies showed danger. My position: shut them down. Since when do we ask federal agencies whether they’re safe? When I coordinated the National Citizens Hearings for Radiation Victims, it became obvious that nuclear safety has been a colossal failure since 1945.” Solomon mentions he “has an arrest record as long as (his) arm,” does not consider himself a pacifist and does not shirk about discussing the post-9/11 “commoditization and jingoization of grief,” where suffering of those on the receiving end of US missiles was considered “transitory and insignificant, and their grief and response to it labeled them terrorists.”
Solomon defines himself as the most pro-labor contender in the race. “Public employees deserve to get what they were promised. I do not believe in an austerity assault on working people. In one of our candidate debates, my opponent stated we need to eliminate even more from the suite of benefits already cut by the State. Teachers, firefighters and public workers are the fundamental bedrock of our economy and our social contract,” he tells the AVA. “Every US soldier deployed costs one million dollars per year,” Solomon tells his audience. “Here, we are watching a slash-and-burn against public employees. Can you imagine bringing home 20 soldiers and walking up to the county building and saying, ‘here’s $20 million?” he asks the crowd, to hearty applause.
“The Federal Government is the only entity capable of pulling us out of this deep ditch. The Republicans slash our social compacts. The Democrats say, ‘We feel bad about this.’ The Republicans say, ‘We feel good about it.’ How these legislators ‘feel’ is not the issue,” Solomon stresses. “The issue is what they do.” He is a passionate defender of Habeas Corpus as well as Move to Amend’s efforts to amend the Constitution, which, if adopted, would abolish corporate personhood.
“We have countless politicians who watch how the wind blows and are then apologetic. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats remained silent during the Afghanistan troop escalation because our president has a ‘D’ after his name,” Solomon tells the audience, vowing that he will be led by conscience and not by Beltway pressure.
At the end of Body of War, Senator Robert Byrd takes Tomas Young into his office and shows him the framed, printed roll call record for HJ Resolution 114. Byrd read the names of the 23 Senators who along with himself voted against the resolution. “The immortal 23,” Byrd says to Young. What the progressives want, and what Norman Solomon wants, is for voters to believe that were he in Congress on that fateful day, Norman Solomon would have been Immortal Number 24.
“Naturally the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy. And it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democratic or a Fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they’re being attacked, and denounce the pacifist for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” — Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, 1934. Read by Sen. Robert Byrd to Congress in 2002 prior to the vote on H.J. Resolution 114.
President Bush’s famous, “Fool Me Once” remarks may have a renewed significance this season, as embittered, disappointed Democrats and progressives disheartened by the Obama Administration must now be re-galvanized, re-energized and coaxed back into creating unified, cohesive political coalitions, here and around the nation. Norman Solomon’s job will be to win that trust, and perhaps more importantly, if elected, to maintain it.