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2000-08-21

Town Hall Meeting in Los Angeles

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In the aftermath of the coronations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, known more popularly as the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, we wanted to turn to some excerpts from a Town Hall meeting held in Los Angeles last week, sponsored by the Nation Institute. In just a few moments we will hear Gore Vidal reading his open letter to the next president of the United States. [includes rush transcript]

But first, we turn to a speech by Lani Guinier on proportional representation.

Seven years ago, she was President Clinton’s nominee as assistant attorney general for civil rights. There was an intense media smear campaign against her. She was dubbed the Quota Queen.

One of the most prominent themes of the attack on Guinier was her supposed support for electoral districts shaped to ensure a black majority —- a process known as "race-conscious districting." An entire op-ed in the New York Times—- which appeared on the day her nomination was withdrawn (6/3/93) — was based on the premise that Guinier was in favor of "segregating black voters in black-majority districts."

In reality, Guinier is one of the most prominent voices in the civil rights community challenging such districting.

Tape:

  • Lani Guinier, a civil rights activist and lawyer. She is currently Professor of Law at Harvard University. She was nominated by President Clinton in 1993 for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. After an intense media smear campaign, that nomination was withdrawn by Clinton.

We turn now to an open letter to the next president by Gore Vidal.

Gore Vidal was born at West Point and raised in Washington, D.C. He was the grandson of the legendary blind Sen. Thomas Gore and kin to Jimmy Carter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and vice president Al Gore.

In 1960 he ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress as a Democratic-Liberal candidate in New York. Between 1970 and 1972 he was co-chairman of the People’s Party. In 1982 Vidal launched a campaign in California for the US senate where he ran against Pete Wilson. He came second out of a field of nine, polling half a million votes.

Tape:

  • Gore Vidal, an author and activist, well known for novels like ??Burr, ??Lincoln, ??1876 and ??Empire. M

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now going to move on to other events that have taken place throughout the Democratic Convention and beyond in the aftermath of the coronations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, known more popularly as the Republic and Democratic National Conventions. We wanted to turn to some excerpts from a town hall meeting held in Los Angeles last week, sponsored by the Nation Institute.

In a few minutes, we’ll hear from Gore Vidal, reading his open letter to the next President of the United States. But first, we turn to a speech by Lani Guinier on proportional representation. Seven years ago, she was President Clinton’s nominee as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. There was an intense media smear campaign against her. She was dubbed the "quota queen."

Eventually, without even being able to clear her name or have hearings, President Clinton withdrew her nomination. One of the most prominent themes of the attack on Guinier was her supposed support for electoral districts shaped to ensure a black majority, a process known as race-conscious districting. An entire op-ed piece in the New York Times, which appeared on the day her nomination was withdrawn, was based on the premise that Guinier was in favor of "segregating black voters in black majority districts." In reality, Guinier is one of the most prominent voices in the civil rights community challenging such districting.

With the Green Party and Ralph Nader fighting to get into the debates, here is Lani Guinier.

LANI GUINIER: I want to talk about the next twelve years, not the next four months. And I want to talk about the next twelve years, because I think that part of the problem in the way that we tend to examine problems is that we look at them only in terms of what we can do today, as opposed to how can we build toward tomorrow. This is about the future, not just the present.

If we were going to talk only about the present, I would start by talking about Bill Gates, and I would tell you, for example, that the top 1% of US households now have more wealth than the entire bottom 95%, but that Bill Gates alone has more wealth than the bottom 45% of American households combined. Bill Gates in 1998 — that was two years ago — his billion-dollar wealth was worth more than the GNPs of all of Central America, plus Jamaica and Belize. One man. We call this in the United States "affluenza". And we promote the idea that this is the American dream and everyone can have access to it, when in fact only 4% of millionaires have come from poverty. This is the American dream that a few experience.

And if I were just going to talk about the present, I would also talk about the other American dream that more than two million of our fellow citizens are presently experiencing, and that is the present drive to incarcerate more and more of our young people, particularly African American and Latino men. We have 458,000 people in the United States prisons on drug charges alone. That is more than 100,000 people in prison in the entire European Union. OK, so we have 458,000 people incarcerated on drug charges alone. It’s more than 100,000 people imprisoned in the entire European Union, and they have a population that is more than a hundred million larger than ours.

Now, one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. For every one black man in college in California, there are five in a state penitentiary. For every one Latino man in California in college, there are three in prison. Blacks make up 46% of all inmates serving sentences of at least one year.

And I could give you an analysis of why I think this is happened. It’s part of the war on drugs. It’s part of a failed policy that has been pushed by both the Republican and the Democratic administrations.

AMY GOODMAN: Harvard University law professor, Lani Guinier. We’ll continue with this speech in just a minute here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers, as we go back to the speech of Harvard Law professor, Lani Guinier, talking about what she calls the disaster of politics in this country.

LANI GUINIER: Politicians of all stripes know that the war on drugs has been a failure, and yet they are intimidated by the charge that they are soft on crime, to follow what they now is rational and to educate the American people that we need to treat drugs as a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. And part of the reason that we need to reconsider the war on drugs is because the drive to incarcerate so many people is draining our state budgets. California used to have the premier higher education system in this country, and in 1995 California started spending more money building prisons than building institutions of higher education. Right now in California a first-year college professor makes $41,000 a year. A prison guard makes $51,000 a year. So those of you who have been teaching in college, you now know what you should be doing.

So what do we do about this? If the politicians are too intimidated from speaking the truth, who is going to speak the truth to the American people so that we can begin to invest in our children and not in the prison-industrial complex? I say until we change the political system in this country, no one is going to be able to speak truth to power, and that is because we have basically sold our democracy to the highest bidder. And we have sold our democracy, not because we’re bad people, but because the structure of our political system demands it.

Everyone that has been on this panel who is a politician has spoken of the need to move to the center. Why do you have to move to the center in politics? You don’t have to move to the center in democracy, you have to move to the center in America’s version of democracy. This is simply a choice, a preference that we have made based on our legacy of British rule. We have adopted a system called winner-take-all elections, meaning that whoever gets the most votes wins all the power, and whoever votes for the loser, whether it is George W. Bush or Ralph Nader, gets nothing. Why do we give the loser no power? Why do we give those who dissent no voice? Because the politicians like it that way. The politicians who have been successful are those who have figured out where the votes lie and have oriented themselves to capture the middle.

Most other democracies use a system called proportional representation. What does "proportional representation" mean? Proportional representation does not mean quotas. Let me say that again. Proportional representation does not mean quotas. Proportional representation means democracy. Proportional representation means when you vote, whoever you vote for becomes your representative. Amazing! You actually get to choose who represents you! You actually get to choose who speaks for you!

My seven minutes is up. But let me just close by saying we need a democracy that is not just of and by and for the people, we need a democracy that is with the people. If you want a democracy that speaks not only for you but with you, you need the power to be able to cast a vote for someone who can then get elected to represent you. We need to think globally but act locally.

And we can change the system of elections in this country within the next twelve years, because there is nothing in the Constitution that says we have to vote based on winner-take-all elections. The Constitution is absolutely silent on this subject. The Constitution does not say you have to divide up congressional seats into districts. We could elect members of Congress by voting for a political party and then based on the number of votes that party got, they would get that percentage of votes in the Congress. So the Green Party, even if it could not win the presidency, could be represented in the Congress from California.

The advantage of this system, which has been used in Illinois for half of this century, which was used in New York City with great success during the 1940s, is that it maximizes turnout, because it gives every politician an incentive to bring out the voters who actually support the views of that politician or that party. This is not about the lesser of two evils, this is about maximizing choice, which I always thought in America was our greatest value. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Harvard University law professor, Lani Guinier, speaking last week at a Nation Institute forum at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.

Last week, MasterCard credit company filed a $5 million lawsuit against Ralph Nader, accusing him of ripping off MasterCard’s well-known "Priceless" advertising campaign in a new TV ad for the Green Party presidential candidate. MasterCard filed its lawsuit in Manhattan, seeking an order barring Nader from running the ad. MasterCard’s ads feature sentimental episodes of families together at places, including a beach or baseball game, assigning monetary values to various activities, before coming up with an activity that is "priceless." The ads conclude, "There are some things in life money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard."

Well, the Nader ad adopts a nearly identical format to focus attention on the role of political contributions in this year’s presidential campaign. The ad opens with video clips of Texas Governor George Bush and Vice President Al Gore, as an announcer intones, "Grilled tenderloin for fund raiser, $1,000 a plate. Campaign ads filled with half-truths? $10 million. Promises to special interest groups? Over $10 billion. Finding out the truth? Priceless." The announcer concludes, "There are some things money can’t buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last."

Well, in the spirit of that, we bring you a speech at the Nation Institute forum by Gore Vidal. Gore Vidal was born at West Point and raised in Washington, D.C. He was the grandson of the legendary Senator Thomas Gore, and kin to Jimmy Carter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Vice President Al Gore. Vidal is well known for novels like Burr, Lincoln, 1876, and Empire. In 1960, he ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress as a Democratic Liberal candidate in New York. Between 1970 and '72, he was co-chair of the People's Party. In 1982, Gore Vidal launched a campaign in California for the US Senate, where he ran against Pete Wilson. He came second out of a field of nine, polling half-a-million votes.

Well, this past week, at the Town Hall forum at the Leo Baeck Temple, he read his letter to the future President of the United States.

GORE VIDAL: Well, as Ronald Regan would say, always eloquent. For fifty years, I was the only Gore. I’ve been sitting here all day reeling as this name of my cousin is bandied about. I don’t know how to respond. If I were younger, would I turn green with envy? I am in Cassandra mode today. And recently another magazine keeps asking me to write for them: Modern Maturity. I think many of you can see why. It is visible. So I have indeed written — they asked, "Would you write for our next November issue a letter to the next President of the United States, whoever he might be?" So this is what I’ve done. It’s advice.

Good morning, Mr. President. It’s January 2001 again. Yes, again, we were there once before, remember? In 1968, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, our current 2001 involves space, not as a place to explore, but as a busy firing range where we intend to knock out the incoming nuclear missiles of a fiendishly resourceful, if as yet unidentified enemy, who daily grows more fearsome. Who might he be? Hard to tell. Once the Soviet Union, so unsportingly disbanded in order to pursue proto-capitalism and double-entry bookkeeping, our warlords have been anxiously searching for new enemies in order to justify an ever-increasing military budget.

Obviously there is terrorism, which is all around us, and there’s the war on drugs, which is really all around us, and so never to be won. Now, in a burst of inspiration, a new clear and present danger has been unveiled: "states of concern," formerly rogue states. Currently, North Korea, Iraq, Iran have been so fingered. Meanwhile, the world’s one billion Moslems are being demonized as wild fanatics, dedicated to destroying all that is good on earth, which is us. So now that we have literally targeted our enemies, we can be certain that sooner or later, they will take out our cities from their outer spaceships. Therefore, to protect ourselves, the Ronald Regan Memorial Nuclear Space Shield must be set in place at an initial cost of $60 billion, even though as of last July tests of component parts, no matter how faked by the Pentagon, kept failing.

All told, from 1946 to 1999, the United States has spent on national defense $7.1 trillion. Since our national debt is now $3.6 trillion, we should note that all of this is due to military spending and to the servicing of the debt thus incurred. Since Treasury figures are always juggled, we will be in your debt, Mr. President, whoever you might be, if you see to it that the actual income and outgo of federal money is honestly reported. Last year the government told us falsely that its income was just over $1.8 trillion, while it spent for the first time ever just under $1.8 trillion. Hence the famous phantom surplus, when there was actually the usual homely deficit of around $90 billion.

Year after year, the government’s official income is inflated by counting as revenue the income of the people’s Social Security and Medicare trust funds. These funds are not federal revenue. Last year, Social Security had a surplus of $150 billion. No wonder corporate America and their employees in Congress want to privatize this healthy fund, which is endangered only by them.

Although actual military spending was indeed lower last year than usual, half the budget still went to pay for wars to come, as well as to blowing up the odd aspirin factory in the Sudan. Cash outlays for the military were $344 billion, while interest on the military-caused national debt was $282 billion. I’m sorry to bore you with these statistics, Mr. President, but they are at the heart of our — what was Jimmy Carter’s unfortunate word? — "malaise," which is French for "broke," despite the administration’s recent airy promise of a $1.9 trillion budget surplus over the next decade.

Mr. President, if you’re going to be of any use to us at all, the nation or the globe that it uneasily holds hostage, you will have to tame — and here comes the Cassandra part — the American military, cut back on their revenues, particularly for weapons procurement, discipline the out-of-control service chiefs. A permanent bureaucrat at the Department of Defense remarked recently, "I would never let the services talk to me the way this leadership, the Clinton administration, is letting the services talk to them".

In August 1961, I visited President Kennedy at Hyannis Port. The Berlin Wall was going up, and he was about to being a big military buildup, reluctantly, or so he said, as he puffed on a cigar liberated by a friend from Castro’s Cuba. Operation Mongoose was never very thorough. It should be noted in passing that Jack hated liberals more than he did conservatives. He used to say "No one can ever be liberal enough for the New York Post." This was a different era, of course. "Well," he said, "the New York Post should be happy now. Berlin’s going to cost us at least three-and-a-half billion." So with this military buildup, we’re going to have a $7 billion deficit this year. "It’s a lot of pump priming," said Kennedy. And then he scowled, he said, "I hate the way that they throw money around over there at the Pentagon." "It’s not 'they,'" I said primly. "It’s you now. It’s your administration."

He told me the facts of life, and I repeat them now, Mr. President, as advice from the thirty-fifth to the — what number are you, Mr. President? Are you forty-two or forty-three? "The only way," said Kennedy "for a President to control the Pentagon would be if he spent the entire four years of his first term doing nothing else but investigating that mess, which means he really could do nothing else." "Like getting elected," I added. He grinned, something like that.

So I now propose, while there is still time, that the new President zero in on the links between corporate America and the military and rationalize as best you can the various procurement policies, particularly the Ronald Regan Memorial Nuclear Shield, sometimes known as National Missile Defense, or NMD. You should also leak to the American people certain Pentagon secrets. In 1995, we still had our missiles trained on 2,500 foreign targets. Today, to celebrate peace in the world, our missiles are trained on 3,000 foreign targets, of which 2,260 are in Russia, while the other targets are in China, already selected as our next world enemy, and, of course, targets in the rogue states of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Although President Clinton has spoken eloquently of a reduction in such dangerous nuclear targeting, the Pentagon goes its merry way making the world unsafe for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal speaking last week in Los Angeles in the midst of the Democratic National Convention. We’ll continue with him in just a minute, here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! as we continue with Gore Vidal’s open letter to the next President of the United States.

GORE VIDAL: Jack Kennedy very much enjoyed a book called Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel, a journalist of that time — later became a movie. It tells how the military, under a jingo, based on one Admiral Arthur Radford, planned a coup to take over the White House. This was very much Jack’s kind of book. He found it riveting. "Only," he chuckled, "it’s a lot more likely that this President won’t one day raise his own army and occupy their damned building."

No, I don’t agree with Oliver Stone that the generals killed him. But there is somewhere out there — and this is what is missing in our history — a watchdog that seems never to bark in the night. Yet the dog that doesn’t bark is the one that should be guarding the house from burglars. In this case, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower famously warned us about. Yes, there are numerous media stories about costly overruns in the defense industries, and there’s the beginning of what might turn into an actual debate over the nuclear shield that Reagan envisaged for us after having seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, a movie nowhere as good as 2001. Frances FitzGerald tells us this wondrous story in her book, Way Out There in the Blue.

But no one has yet taken seriously the military’s ongoing threat to us all, thanks to the hubris of senior officers grown accustomed to dispensing vast amounts of the people’s money, for missiles that can’t hit targets and bombers that cannot fly in the rain. Congress, which should ride herd, is not because too many of its members are financed by those same companies that absorb our tax money. Nor is it particularly helpful that senior officers, after placing orders with the defense industry, often go to work as salesmen for the very same companies that they used to buy from.

Of all recent Presidents, Clinton was expected to behave sensibly in economic matters. He understood how the economy works. But because he had used various dodges to stay out of Vietnam, he came to office worried that he would be thought weak by the military. When Clinton chose to live up to a pledge to gay voters by ensuring that the private life of any military person was no business but his own, the chiefs began to howl that morale would be destroyed. Clinton backed down. When a major general insulted him in a speech, he did nothing. Fortunately, others removed the general.

When Clinton went aboard the Battleship Roosevelt to take the salute, sailors pranced around with mop-ends on their heads doing fag imitations while hooting at the President. This was aboard the Roosevelt. Clinton just stood there. I can only say that if Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Commander-in-Chief that I served under in World War II, had been so treated, at least one admiral would have been peeling potatoes in the galley the next day while a hundred sailors would be enjoying quiet time in the brig. These successful insults to civilian authority has made the military ever more truculent and insolent, and now they must be brought to heel.

Last summer, the warlords of the Pentagon presented the Secretary of Defense with their program objective memorandum. Usually this is a polite wish list of things that they would like to see under the Christmas tree. But last summer’s wish list turned out to be a harsh ultimatum. As one dissenting officer put it, instead of a budget based on a top-line budget number, the chiefs are demanding a budget based on military strategy. Although their joint military strategies, as tested in war over the last fifty years, have usually been disastrous, military strategy in this context simply means extorting from the government $30 billion a year over and above the 51% of the budget that now already goes for war.

Mr. President, I would advise you to move your office from the West Wing of the White House to the Pentagon across the river. Better view, even though every day that you spend there could prove to be your Ides of March. You’ll at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried to do something for us, the hitherto unrepresented people.

Fifty years ago, Harry Truman replaced the old republic with a national security state whose soul purpose is to wage, as the historian Charles Beard put it, "perpetual war for perpetual peace."

Representative government of, by, and for the people is a faded memory, as you all have been discussing today. Only corporate America enjoys representation by the congresses and presidents that it pays for in an arrangement where no one is entirely accountable, because those who have bought the government, also own the media.

Now, with the revolt of the Praetorian Guard at the Pentagon, we are entering a new and dangerous phase. Although we regularly stigmatize other societies as rogue states, we ourselves have become the largest rogue state of all. We honor no treaties. We spurn international courts. We strike unilaterally wherever we choose. We give orders to the United Nations but do not pay our dues. Complaining of terrorism, our empire is now the greatest terrorist of all. We bomb, invade, subvert other states. Although we the people of the United States are the sole source of legitimate authority in this land, we are no longer represented in Congress assembled. Our Congress has been hijacked by corporate America and its enforcer: the imperial military machine.

We, the unrepresented people of the United States, are as much victims of this militarized government as any Panamanian or Iraqi or Somalian. We have allowed our institutions to be taken over in the name of a globalized American empire that is totally alien in concept to anything our founders had in mind. I suspect that it is far too late in the day for us to restore the republic that we lost a half-century ago. Also, as Pericles reminded the Athenians, there is an off-chance that you might actually make some difference, an empire is also a very dangerous thing to let go.

So, Mr. President, if you want to make some difference, start now to rein in the warlords. Reduce military spending, which will make you popular, because you can then reduce our taxes instead of doing what you have been financed to do, freeing corporate America of its tiny tax burden.

Finally, as sure as you were not elected by we, the people, but by vast sums of unaccountable corporate money, the day of judgment is approaching. So be like Teddy Roosevelt. The bosses of New York said, "We bought him, but he didn’t stay bought." Use your first term to break the Pentagon. Forget about a second term, because should you succeed on the other side of the Potomac, you will be here a hero to we the people. Should you fail, or worse, do nothing, you could be the last president, by which time history will have ceased to notice the United States. And all our proud rhetoric will have been reduced to an ever-diminishing echo. Let us try not to let this happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Writer Gore Vidal, his letter to the next President of the United States, here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.

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