Published on Monday, April 24, 2006 by CounterPunch
by Alexander Cockburn
I was harsh about Senator Barack Obama of Illinois here a couple of weeks ago, and the very next morning his press aide, Tommy Vietor, was on the phone howling about inaccuracies. It was an illuminating conversation, indicative of the sort of instinctive reflexes at work in the office of a man already breathlessly touted as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2008 and maybe a presidential candidate somewhere down the road from there.
Obama's man took grave exception to my use of the word "distanced" to describe what his boss had done when Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, got into trouble for likening conditions at Guantanamo to those in a Nazi or Stalin-era camp. This was one of Durbin's finer moments, as he read an FBI man's eyewitness describing how he had entered interview rooms "to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more."
"If I read this to you", Durbin told his fellow senators, "and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime Pol Pot or others that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course."
So Durbin paid the penalty of having to eat crow on the Senate floor. His fellow senator, Obama, did not support him in any way. Obama said, "we have a tendency to demonize and jump on and make mockery of each other across the aisle and that is particularly pronounced when we make mistakes. Each and every one of us is going to make a mistake once in a while... and what we hope is that our track record of service, the scope of how we've operated and interacted with people, will override whatever particular mistake we make."
That's three uses of the word "mistake". This isn't distancing?
Nor did Obama's man like my description of Obama's cheerleading for the nuke Iran crowd. Obama recently declared that when it comes to the U.S. posture on Iran, all options, including military ones, should be on the table. Now, if Obama had any sort of guts in such matters he would have said that if Iraq is to teach America's leaders any lesson, it is that reckless recourse to the military "option" carries a dreadful long-term price tag.
He did nothing of the sort, which is not surprising to anyone who read his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations last November. Remember the context. Rep. Jack Murtha had just given a savage jolt to the White House. This be-medalled former chairman of the House Armed Services committee had publicly delivered the actual opinion of the generals: "I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis The United States will immediately redeploy immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process."
And who knows, if Murtha's counsel had been followed, maybe it would have saved Iraq from the horrors now unraveling. But Democrats fled Murtha, few with more transparent calculation than Obama who voyaged to the Council on Foreign Relations on November 22, there to ladle out to the assembled elites such balderdash as "The President could take the politics out of Iraq once and for all if he would simply go on television and say to the American people 'Yes, we made mistakes'", or "we need to focus our attention on how to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. Notice that I say 'reduce,' and not 'fully withdraw'", or "2006 should be the year that the various Iraqi factions must arrive at a fair political accommodation to defeat the insurgency; and , the Administration must make available to Congress critical information on reality-based benchmarks that will help us succeed in Iraq."
Obama is one of those politicians whom journalists like to decorate with words as "adroit" or "politically adept" because you can actually see him trimming to the wind, the way you see a conjuror of moderate skill shove the rabbit back up his sleeve. Above all he is concerned with the task of reassuring the masters of the Democratic Party, and beyond that, the politico-corporate establishment, that he is safe. Whatever bomb might have been in his head has long since been dis-armed. He's never going to blow up in the face of anyone of consequence.
There are plenty of black people like that in the Congress now. After a decade or so of careful corporate funding, as the Black Congressional Caucus is sinking under the weight of Democratic Leadership Copuncil clones like Artur Davis of Alabama, Albert Wynn of Maryland, Sanford Bishop and David Scott of Georgia, William Jefferson of Louisiana, Gregory Meeks of New York, all assiduously selling for a mess of pottage the interests of the voters who sent them to Washington. Obama has done exactly the same thing. He lobbed up the first signal flare during the run-up to his 2004 senate race, when his name began to feature on Democratic Leadership Council literature as one of the hundred Democratic leaders to watch . That indispensable publication The Black Commentator raised a stink about this. "It would be a shame," wrote the Commentator's Bruce Dixon, " if he is in the process of becoming 'ideologically freed' from the opinions of the African American and other Democrats whose votes he needs to win."
Obama wriggled for a while, sending out clouds of mush speak such as "I believe that politics in any democracy is a game of addition, not subtraction", but the Commentator held his feet to the fire. They posed Obama three "bright-line" questions:
1. Do you favor the withdrawal of the United States from NAFTA? Will you in the Senate introduce or sponsor legislation toward that end?
This was in 2003, when Obama clearly felt he could not afford to endanger left support by answering anything other than Yes on the questions and so he duly told the Black Commentator that he would stop hanging his hat in the halls of the DLC and would tell them to remove his name from their !00-To-Watch list. Hence his press man, Vietor's, sensitivity to my allusion in that last to Obama's "mentor" being Senator Joe Lieberman. As a freshman senator, Vietor insisted, Obama had been assigned Lieberman as "mentor". Read the Hartford Courant and you'll find Lieberman boasting that Obama picked him.
Either way, it's obvious that Obama could have brokered a different mentor if he'd so desired it, same way he could have declined to go and tout for Lieberman at that Democratic Party dinner in Connecticut at the end of March. But he clearly didn't, because he wanted to send out a reassuring signal, same way as his Political Action Committee, the Hope Fund's, is raising money for 14 of his senatorial colleagues ten of whom are DLC in orientation, which is half of the DLC presence in the Senate.
There has been a more substantive signal, keenly savored by the corporate world, where Obama voted for "tort reform", thus making it far harder for people to get redress or compensation. Actually the Yes vote in the Senate was filibuster-proof, s Obama could have voted either way without it making anydifference. He just wanted the top people to know j how safe he was.
A woman from Illinois wrote to me after my last column on Obama, agreeing with my reproofs, and saying:
Here's an example of how the position and adulation from those in Washington have gone to his head. I'm involved with the Springfield (IL) Urban League. We began asking almost immediately after the election if he could be the keynote speaker at our annual fundraising dinner which was held last fall! His staff delayed positive responses (even as we continued to call and inquire) until it was too late to get on the schedule of any nationally recognized 'celebrity.' (Thankfully, the attendance was excellent and the fundraiser our best ever despite the brush off we received from Obama.) Let me reiterate: Barack Obama blew off speaking before an audience of 500 primarily African-American voters in Illinois the state he purports to represent. He's spoken here lots of times prior to his election to the Senate, and even since. But he blew us off for nothing more than continued visits to states that did not elect him to stump for sometimes-questionable democrats like the Lieberman situation."
Some hopeful progressives still say, "Obama has to bob and weave, while positioning himself at the high table as the people's champion." But in his advance to the high table he is divesting himself of all legitimate claims to be any sort of popular champion, as opposed to another safe black, like Condoleezza Rice (whom Obama voted to confirm. The Empire relishes such servants.
And so Obama, the constitutional law professor, voted to close off any filibuster of Alito and fled Senator Russell Feingold's motion to censure the President, declaring: "my and Senator Feingold's view is not unanimous. Some constitutional scholars and lower court opinions support the president's argument that he has inherent authority to go outside the bounds of the law in monitoring the activities of suspected terrorists. The question is whether the president understood the law and knowingly flaunted it."
That's not the question at all. The vitality of the Constitution does not rest on whether Bush understands it, any more that the integrity of the Criminal Code depends on whether the President has ever read a line of any statute. We can safely assume that he doesn't and he hasn't.
And so also did Obama, the constitutional law professor, vote Yea on March 2 to final passage of the U.S.A PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, unlike ten of his Democratic colleagues.
Vietor, Obama's man, laughed derisively at my complaint at the end of my last column how most of her Democratic colleagues had fled Cynthia McKinney. "She apologized", Vietor cried, as though that settled the matter. In fact the betrayal of McKinney, particularly by her black colleagues, was an appalling and important political moment rewarding the racism showered on McKinney and the ongoing implosion of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama, of course, distanced himself from her too.
Alexander Cockburn, along with Jeffrey St. Clair, are the editors of CounterPunch.
© 2006 CounterPunch