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Rick MacArthur: “You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America”

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As the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver, we speak to Harper’s publisher Rick MacArthur on his new book You Can’t Be President. MacArthur says that the popular notion that any American can become president only reinforces the “destructive national delusion that widespread, up-from-the-ground, truly popular democracy, both political and economic, really exists in America.” To assume that, he says, is equal to believing that Santa Claus exists. [includes rush transcript]

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


As we talk about the elections and continue to break with convention, we now turn to a question at the core of the American political process: Just who can become president of this country, and just how deep is the American love for a democracy?

Most of us have been brought up on the idea any deserving US citizen can technically reach the White House one day. We have also been reared on the belief that Americans are duty-bound to maintaining the democratic values of our country.

But award-winning journalist, author, publisher and president of Harper’s magazine, John MacArthur, begs to differ. His latest book, which comes out next month, is called You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. MacArthur says the popular notion any American can become president only reinforces the “destructive national delusion that widespread, up-from-the-ground, truly popular democracy, both political and economic, really exists in America.” To assume that, he says, is equal to believing Santa Claus exists.

John MacArthur, who is called actually “Rick” MacArthur, joins us now from our firehouse studio in New York. This is his first interview about his forthcoming book, You Can’t Be President.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rick MacArthur. Why don’t you start off by explaining, why can’t anyone in this country who’s an American citizen be president?

We seem to be having a microphone problem. Again, we’re going to be going to Rick MacArthur. His book is You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.

And, by the way, Democracy Now! is expanding its coverage to two hours for this two weeks, this week in Denver and next week in St. Paul. If your station is not broadcasting the full two hours, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. There, you will see the video, you can listen to the audio, and the full transcripts will be available for both hours. In fact, we are looking for transcribers helping us with this mammoth project, and you can just email us at transcribe@democracynow.org if you’re interested.

But we’re going to turn right now back to Rick MacArthur with the central question: why can’t anyone become president in the United States, Rick MacArthur?


Well, one reason you can’t be president is because not everyone could get slated by the Cook County Democratic machine the way Barack Obama was on several occasions when he was an Illinois politician. One of the paradoxes about Barack Obama and the notion that he represents the American ideal that anyone can become president is that he is sponsored by the political organization that epitomizes one-party rule in this country, the Cook County Democratic machine run by Richard Daley, which previously was run by his father. I mean, this is a dynasty, a political dynasty of fifty years, sixty years standing, that doesn’t allow people to run just because they feel like it or because they think they have a bright, fresh new idea. So the idea that Barack Obama represents this ideal or epitomizes this ideal is preposterous.

I am more interested now than ever in party politics and the barriers that the Democratic Party and Republican Party put up to prevent independence, prevent insurgents, prevent people with differing points of view from entering the political process. So, putting aside all the obvious problems in the electoral system — money, the fact that you can’t run without $300 million in the case of Obama, maybe $10, $15, $20 million if you want to run for the Senate in South Dakota; the electoral college system, the fact we don’t have direct popular vote for president — people have to look at the origins of most of these candidates. So when we talk about Barack Obama, we have to talk about his political origins in Illinois, and they are very interesting.

One of the chapters that I am proudest of in my book is the one about the big box minimum wage fight in Chicago. When the argument began about whether to let Wal-Mart come into Chicago, Mayor Daley wanted very badly to let Wal-Mart come in. Some aldermen in Chicago didn’t want Wal-Mart to come in, and there was a tremendous fight. Finally, they decided to allow one Wal-Mart into the black ghetto on the west side of Chicago, and a few alderman — actually a majority of aldermen — finally came around to the notion that, well, if we’re going to let Wal-Mart in, we should at least force them to pay a decent wage, a minimum wage above the ordinary minimum wage, because Chicago, like every other industrial city or former industrial city in the country, is suffering from deindustrialization. People are desperate for work. Barack Obama never took a position on the big box minimum wage bill, because that’s not something that would have pleased his political sponsor, who is Mayor Daley. So this is the sort of thing that I focus on in the book.


Rick MacArthur, you talk a lot about the fundraising and the historic precedent for the Obama fundraising machine. You go back further than Howard Dean and John McCain. Explain how it works.


Well, the fundraising machine goes back — I mean, when they banned so-called soft money, the whole — when they banned the direct contributions of above a certain amount after the Watergate reforms of the ’70s, the two parties had to figure out new ways to raise money. But what they’ve done, by bundling and political action committees and so on and so forth and going to big business, is to arrange a system where it’s like something — it’s a term they use in business school. They talk about barriers to entry. In other words, a company sets up — if you want to go into competition against the dominant company in your sector, in your market, there are barriers to entry, and you have to analyze the barriers to entry. The barriers to entry to politics in the United States are — the principal one is that you cannot raise money on the level of an incumbent congressman or an incumbent politician. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party raise so much money now that you or I or somebody off the street who is serious about politics simply cannot enter the political process anymore.

Now, in the Democratic Party, this wasn’t as stark until the ’90s, when Bill Clinton really pioneered corporate fundraising on a level with the Republicans. He did this by, of course, supporting NAFTA and free trade agreements that made big American corporations happy — international financiers, commercial banks, investment banks and so on. And what Barack Obama has done is to copy the Clintons.

Another thing that astonishes me is that no one seems to have read his book, The Audacity of Hope. It’s all over his book that he favors free trade, he favors — he’s very friendly with the investment bank community, with the hedge funds, with the corporate lawyers and so on and so forth. And these are the people — despite the fact that he has raised a great number of small contributions from individuals with not much money, his campaign is dominated by the corporate and the financial sectors. He does this by saying to people, “Look, you have nothing to fear from me. I’m essentially sympathetic to your points of view.” And he says so in his book. The Audacity of Hope is essentially an advertisement for his availability, for his nonthreatening position vis-a-vis the financial community. He says in the book at one point — he’s talking to Robert Rubin, his new friend and Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, and he says, “Well, you know, Bob Rubin, he’s a great guy, and it’s hard to argue with his fundamental thesis, which is that globalization is inevitable.” Now, this is one of the great clichés of modern times, to say that globalization is inevitable. But in any event, it announces to the investment bankers and the corporate lawyers and so on, and the lobbyists, “You have nothing to fear from me. Contribute to my campaign. I’ll be just as good on free trade as Hillary Clinton.”


The names of the largest contributors to the Obama campaign, the corporations that are most funding him?


Well, you’re looking at Lehman Brothers and Citigroup, which is Bob Rubin’s — where Bob Rubin works. Goldman Sachs is his number one banking contributor, if you put all the bundlers together. National Amusements, I think it’s called, which is the holding company for Viacom, is in his top ten.

When I looked at it, the first thing I noticed about Obama’s winds of change, his breath of fresh air, was that of the top twenty corporate and financial contributors to his campaign and Clinton’s, eleven were the same. So where is the big difference in their approach to politics?

The other thing that you should know about Obama is that he has been — he goes around saying he doesn’t take money from lobbyists. Well, it’s true that he doesn’t take money from registered lobbyists, but only a child or a naïf would think that corporate lawyers or Washington lawyers don’t lobby informally in front regulatory commissions and in front of members of Congress, and Obama has been all over the corporate law community. And he, early in his campaign, even went down — and this is audacious, I must say — to the headquarters of Greenberg Traurig, Jack Abramoff’s firm, the lawyers — the headquarters of the law offices in Miami, and did a video stream fundraising pitch, where he raised a whole bunch of money from the lawyers who worked alongside Jack Abramoff for I don’t know how many years. It’s absurd. It’s a distinction without a — a difference without a distinction, I think is the way one person put it, not taking money from corporate lawyers and refusing — or rather, not taking money from registered lobbyists but taking money from corporate lawyers, who in effect do the same kind of lobbying that registered lobbyists do. And now you’re looking at a vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who’s very much in that mix.


You say, in addition to the largest contributors — Goldman Sachs, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup — Obama’s sixth largest contributor was National Amusements, Inc., the parent company of media mogul Sumner Redstone’s Viacom and CBS empire.


Right, and this is also crucially important. You know, he’s also getting a lot of money from News Corporation. I mean, Rupert Murdoch hedges his bets very carefully, and he was very careful to split it down the middle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He didn’t know which faction of the Democratic Party was going to win this one. But he is very media-savvy, Obama, and he knows that taking money or at least raising money from these groups is an important — again, an important message to the media that he’s no threat on issues like deregulation of the media and so on.

Now, I am sure that Obama would be better than John McCain on deregulation in the media, on FCC issues. It would be hard to be worse than John McCain on these issues. But I’m just saying that if people imagine that this is a reform movement represented by Barack Obama, in terms of diversified media, in terms of reforming the lobby system in Washington, campaign finance reform, getting out of Iraq, which I hope we’re going to talk about in a minute, they’re deluding themselves.

I neglected to mention that on the big box minimum wage bill back in Chicago — and again, this is bread-and-butter Washington — excuse me, Democratic Party labor politics — Daley prevented a big box minimum wage from being instituted in Chicago, and there still isn’t one. He defeated the forces of labor. He defeated the independent Democrats in the city council, and Barack Obama has never said a word about that issue or really said anything substantive about Wal-Mart and their stranglehold on the wage scales in big cities all over the country now.


You have a fascinating section throughout this book: your first — the first interview done with Ned Lamont since he ran against the now independent Senator Lieberman of Connecticut. But before we go to that, I wanted to talk to you about the Clintons and how money works in politics — this goes back to 2004 — because there’s a lot of talk here, Rick, in Denver about just, of course, how much the Clintons will be supporting Barack Obama. We all know that Hillary Clinton and John McCain are very fond of each other. They’ve traveled together extensively. I was just in Estonia, and they still talk about when McCain and Clinton and others in a congressional delegation went there years ago, had a vodka drinking contest. But can you talk about specifically, and especially around the issue of money and these, what, 527s, what the Clintons did in 2004? Neither, of course, were running for president, but how they were involved?


Oh, well, this is essential to understanding where we are now. Howard Dean was, I think, a genuine and authentic independent. He was kind of a centrist or a liberal Republican, if you look at him on the ideological scale, but he was a real threat to the Democratic Party establishment, because he was able to raise so much money on the internet and from small contributors. He makes Obama look like the candidate of oligarchy, if you look at the percentages. In terms of small contributors, Dean was the champion.

And the Clintons had to stop this. And so, the faction around the Clintons that wanted Kerry to lose, because Kerry had to lose for Clinton to run in 2008, they organized a 527 group to hit Dean in Iowa, which has never been written enough about, and they raised money from all these Clinton loyalists, like Daniel Abraham, the former owner of Slim-Fast, and people like that, Alan Patricof. These are Clinton loyalists who go way back. And they did attack advertising on Dean in Iowa, pretending he was soft on Social Security, he couldn’t handle bin Laden, and so on and so forth. And that’s one of the reasons they knocked Howard Dean out. There may be other reasons, which are more complicated, but there was a concerted effort by the Clinton faction of the party, or the Clinton — you’d have to call it the dominant faction of the Democratic Party —- to knock out Dean in Iowa.

And this is something that you have to understand in order to understand why Barack Obama is so cautious. He doesn’t want to take on the central funding apparatus of the Democratic Party. He wants to take it over. He wants to take it away from the Clintons, and the Clintons are very, very unhappy. So, as you watch the Democratic Party -—


So the 527 in 2004 —




The 527 in 2004 was called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare & Progressive Values.


Values, right.


The Clintons were behind this?


Well, I believe they were behind it, yes. And I believe that it’s one of those things — it’s a wink and a nod. Yeah, I wouldn’t be sorry, Hillary Clinton says, if somebody wanted to organize a 527 to go after Howard Dean. And if you look at Danny Abraham’s relationship with the Clintons, he couldn’t be closer. I mean, he practically turned the White House into his crash pad in Washington during the ’90s. He was Clinton’s special envoy to Arafat and to the Israeli government. This is a guy who put $200,000 into that 527, Americans for Progressive Values, etc., etc. And he — you cannot imagine a 527 being formed that Danny Abraham would contribute to without him having an understanding from the Clintons that this is something they wanted him to do. The Clintons had to beat Dean.

And now, if you look at the fundraising, actually, in the Democratic Party now, it’s very interesting. The Democratic National Committee can’t raise much money, and this is partly still because they don’t want Howard Dean to get too much leverage on the party. They want to keep the fundraising in the hands of the party professionals —- Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer, the senator from New York. They don’t want freelancers like Howard Dean coming in and stealing their action, because more and more -—


What’s the Club for Growth, Rick MacArthur?


The Club for Growth —- the interesting thing about 2004, Iowa, is that you have not only a Democratic Party organization going after Dean, you also have a rightwing Republican organization going after him. Club for Growth was associated with Tom DeLay. They also did some very nasty attack advertising with their 527 on Dean, including the famous Volvo ad, where they’ve got a couple of regular old folks from Iowa walking down the street saying, “I think Howard Dean should take his Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, so-on and so-forth, pinko friends back to Vermont, where he came from.” And I still laugh when I think about this, because if you know Howard Dean, if you know anything about him, he comes from this impeccable Republican Wall Street family, Park Avenue, private schools, Yale. You can’t come from a more establishment background than Howard Dean, and they tried to paint him as some kind of left-wing radical, as did the Democratic Party leadership. Evan Bayh, who was then very much involved with the Democratic Leadership Council, said at the time that the Democratic Party was in danger of being taken over by left-wing radicals, Howard Dean being the principal left-wing radical. So this is the milieu that we’re talking about right now, where Barack Obama, he understands, if he wants to be president, he better play ball, and if he tries to go too far -—


We’re talking to —


Sorry, if he tries to go too far outside the box —


We’re talking to Rick MacArthur. Continue that point you said, which is — and if he goes too far, what?


If he goes too far outside the box and tries to become a freelancer, in other words, a real independent reformer, there’s no way Barack Obama could be the nominee for president. Absolutely inconceivable. The only hope he —


So why is Barack Obama giving so much play to the Clintons? I mean, Hillary Clinton will be speaking on Tuesday. President Clinton will be speaking on Wednesday. Her name will be entered. There will be the vote. It’s as if it’s a Clinton convention.


Well, now we’re getting into tactics. We’re getting away from some of the other things I’m talking about. And tactically, I think this is very stupid on the part of Obama. And I seem to be the only person besides Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s former adviser, who’s saying this. The idea — in fact, Dick Morris wrote a very funny piece the other day, saying — on his blog, saying that if Clinton — excuse me, if Obama can’t stand up to the Clintons, how can he stand up to President Putin of Russia? I would say that that’s exactly right, that he has given way too much air time to the Clintons and that Hillary Clinton has not conceded. This is another central part of the thesis of my book, which is that this is a factional fight within the Democratic Party. It’s not an ideological fight, it’s a fight over power. There is very little difference between Obama and Clinton on the big issues of the day. And the Clintons are still running. Hillary Clinton is hoping very much that Obama will lose and that she can present herself in 2012 on the “I told you so” ticket. Now, you can make —- you could say that -—


Do you think they’re going to directly work with John McCain on this?


Well, you’re looking — I mean, already there have been meetings. There was a meeting up in Westchester just a month ago between Clinton fundraisers and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chairman who’s working, I think —- I don’t know if she’s finance chairman, but she’s very involved in raising money for McCain. Lynn Forester De Rothschild, she’s been quoted in the papers saying that she’s not happy with the Obama fundraising apparatus. It’s like two corporations trying to merge, and one of the corporations doesn’t really want to be taken over. The Clinton corporation is hoping, really, that the Obama corporation will bankrupt itself and fall apart and that they can resume their drive for power in four years. And again, I -—


Rick MacArthur —



AMY GOODMAN: — we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion.



AMY GOODMAN: He’s publisher and president of Harper’s magazine. His new book, which is out in a week, is called You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John MacArthur. His book is coming out next week. It’s called You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America, with some remarkable revelations.

OK, talk about Ned Lamont. It may not be a name that people know all over this country at this point, although there was, a few years ago, a moment when the longstanding senator, the senator who is now supporting John McCain, perhaps even could be his vice-presidential candidate, formerly Democrat, independent Lieberman of Connecticut, was very threatened by this man, in fact lost the Democratic primary to him. You had the first interview with him after his loss, Rick MacArthur. Talk about the lessons he has learned.

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, Ned Lamont wanted to stop the war in Iraq, as you know, and he did something — he did something truly audacious, which was to take on Joe Lieberman in his fief in Connecticut. Everybody told him, “Forget it. You can’t run. You’re hopeless. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, the regular party doesn’t want you. Why don’t you start out running for” — he told me — “Why don’t you start running out” — the state chairman told him, “Why don’t you start out running for tax collector, or something like that, state assessor, and work your way up through the party?” which is something Lamont wasn’t interested in doing.

And when he surprised everybody by beating Lieberman in the primary, where was Barack Obama? Well, Barack Obama had already endorsed Lieberman. He’d gone to the Jefferson-Jackson Day chairman — excuse me, rally and banquet in Hartford and made a resounding, ringing endorsement of Joe Lieberman and said, “This is a guy you know you can count on. And we may have a little minor difference on Iraq, but don’t worry, Connecticut will have the good sense to send him back to the Senate.” Now, it was very inconvenient for Obama and for Clinton, Hillary Clinton, that Lamont won.

So Lamont told me the story of what happened when he tried to corral Obama to help him campaign after he won the primary. And, of course, he put me onto some of his people, and one of his fundraisers told me the story of how he tried to, again, corral Obama and say, “Look, we’d like you to make an appearance with Chris Dodd and some of the other Democratic candidates in Connecticut alongside Lamont.” And he said, “Absolutely, maybe.” And he kept avoiding this fundraiser and the Lamont people, and he never made an appearance with Ned Lamont, because he didn’t want to offend Joe Lieberman and the Democratic Party establishment in Connecticut, because he knew they were going to win. He knew that the Republicans and the Democrats were going to get together in Connecticut to beat Lamont, because the Republicans didn’t want their guy to win either. They wanted Lieberman back in. Lieberman is Bush’s best friend on Iraq and a guy they can count on. So the Republicans put up this stumblebum, Alan Schlesinger, who had been busted for card-counting at some Indian casino in Connecticut. And Obama made sure that he didn’t get — do anything to help Lamont, other than some symbolic gestures, like Hillary Clinton. They made symbolic contributions, but they didn’t work for him, they didn’t help him. And, of course, Lamont lost. So Lamont told me — actually, he said — he made a little joke. He said that Obama made sure he drove straight through Connecticut in the middle of the night to make sure that he was never seen alongside Ned Lamont.

Now, one thing you might be interested in knowing is that the fundraiser I talked to, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the American Israel Political Action Committee had also —- Public Affairs Committee had warned candidates like Obama to stay away from Lamont. Why they hated Lamont so much, I can’t say, because Lamont never said anything anti-Israel, as far as I know, or even overtly. He didn’t say anything pro-Palestinian at all. In fact, I remember pro-Palestinian people being offended that Lamont wasn’t taking a tougher line on Israel. All he was was anti-Iraq. He wanted to get out of Iraq. And Obama was warned and made sure, evidently, that he wasn’t going to do anything to help Lamont get elected. This is, again, the paradox -—

AMY GOODMAN: Why does this still matter, Rick MacArthur?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, because if you believe that Obama is going to get us out of Iraq, think again. The people I talk to, the people who know the foreign policy entourage around Obama, particularly Anthony Lake, Samantha Power, these are the conventional Wilsonian liberal interventionists who more or less favored invading Iraq to begin with, or at least they kept their mouths shut, or they might have preferred to do it with more UN cooperation, more European help, and so on and so forth. But essentially, they don’t disagree with the premise that the Middle East, Iraq should be democratized and that the United States should have a big footprint there.

The former foreign minister I talked to, Latin American foreign minister who knows Lake very well, Anthony Lake, who’s, I think, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser, told me that “You’re not getting out of Iraq. Don’t kid yourself. You’re going to be in Iraq for a long, long time.” He’s going to make symbolic gestures. He’ll take some combat brigades out, and so on and so forth, but you’re talking about a more or less permanent military presence in Iraq. I hope I’m wrong on this one. I really hope I’m wrong. But realistically, if you look at Obama’s behavior vis-à-vis Lieberman and Lamont, it’s not very hopeful. Lieberman is the lynchpin now in the Senate. I mean, if Lieberman decided to switch to the Republican caucus, the Democrats lose control of all the committees. And this is a guy, essentially, that Obama backed, either openly or tacitly. And he’s the most ferocious pro-interventionist in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back, Rick MacArthur, to what you just — Rick MacArthur, I want to go back to what you just said. Anthony Lake, top foreign policy adviser to Obama, saying we’re not getting out of Iraq anytime soon —

RICK MacARTHUR: No, no, no. My friend —

AMY GOODMAN: — when Obama has said —

RICK MacARTHUR: Lake is not saying that. My friend who knows Lake very well, who used to be a foreign minister, a Latin American foreign minister, knows Lake fairly well — very well, and says that this is all smoke and mirrors, you’re not getting out of Iraq.

Now, again, I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that circumstances dictate that we’ll get out of Iraq and that Obama will see the wisdom in following through on his promise. But realistically, if you look at the politics behind it and the way he’s behaved up to this point, his votes on Iraq were identical to Hillary Clinton’s. He never voted to cut off funding, except once, when it was safe and he was courting the antiwar vote. This is not an antiwar militant. This is not a guy — and on top of that, he’s saying, “Let’s trade in Iraq for Afghanistan. Let’s up the ante in Afghanistan. Let’s send more troops to Afghanistan,” which to me is madness. Afghanistan is even more hopeless than Iraq. And this is, again, a tactical move that Obama is employing to look like he’s tough on foreign policy and willing to fight terrorism in the four corners of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick MacArthur, as we wrap up this discussion, then do you hold out any hope? I mean, you’re presenting a very dismal picture.

RICK MacARTHUR: I don’t have a lot of hope right now, but I’ll tell you, there’s one hopeful chapter in my book, You Can’t Be President. Unfortunately, the woman I talk about in this chapter is not running for president. Her name is Connie Harding of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. And I put this chapter in specifically to give people hope, to show them that they shouldn’t sit around worrying about so much about who’s going to be president and whether they themselves could become president, but they should try to seize control of their community or the big issues in their community. Connie Harding single-handedly organized a group in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which calls itself the birthplace of American democracy, to stop a Target big box from coming into the town, ruining it. It would have been right across the street from her house. She beat back, with citizen participation —

AMY GOODMAN: Rick, tell the story in fifteen seconds.

RICK MacARTHUR: In fifteen seconds — she fought back with all her neighbors. All the citizens of Portsmouth rose up and beat back this big box initiative, beat back the real estate developers and forced the Portsmouth city, town council to do the right thing. This is democracy in action. This is the sort of thing that gives me hope. Barack Obama does not give me hope. Connie Harding gives me a lot of hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Rick MacArthur, the publisher and president of Harper’s magazine, has written a new book. It’s out next week. It’s called You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.

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