Published on Monday, November 17, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
National Endowment for Democracy's Feel-good Name Belies Its Corrupt Intent
by Harley Sorensen
William Safire was hyperventilating so robustly last week that he caught the attention of a Chronicle reader, who brought Safire's overwrought condition to my attention.
Safire, for those of you who don't know, is what passes for a "moderate" conservative. These days he writes a twice-weekly op-ed column for The New York Times. Back in the olden days, when Safire first came to public attention, he was a speechwriter for Spiro T. Agnew, or, more accurately, a hatchet man's hatchet man.
It was Safire who gave Agnew (to give us), "nattering nabobs of negativism," a put-down of the press. Safire himself is no such nabob, tending more to be a platitudinous purveyor of positivism.
Safire was at his heavy-breathing cheerleading best last week as he polished up the whole bushel of apples for our fearless leader, George Walker Bush. (Fearless because he is not the one being shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan.)
The topic of the column was a Bush speech given a week earlier in Washington. Safire found the speech, addressed to the 20th anniversary gathering of the National Endowment for Democracy, to be "a moving exposition of the noble goal of American foreign policy." He urged us all to read it.
Well, I took Safire's advice. But I did not find anything moving or noble about it. I found it a slick con job. It was vintage Bush, consistent with his practice of saying one thing while doing another.
Did I say "con job"? What else can you say about a speech that mentions "Reagan" seven times, "liberty" 18 times, "freedom" 36 times and "democracy" (singular or plural) a whopping 49 times? Is the speaker imparting information or blowing smoke?
"Liberty," "freedom," and "democracy" are feel-good words to an American audience, and, when used in that abundance, a sales pitch for the speaker. "Reagan," to a conservative crowd, is akin to "god," "creator," "higher power," or "savior."
But I'm used to Alfred E. Bush's blarney and to political operatives like Safire sucking up to the boss of bosses, so that's not what struck me about this particular song and dance. What struck me was the existence of an outfit like the National Endowment for Democracy.
Have you ever heard of it? If you're hardcore political junkie, you probably have, but if you're a normal person, you most likely have not.
The NED was founded in 1983 because President Reagan, the real-life incarnation of Chance the Gardener, had suggested it'd be nice to have a private organization promoting "democracy" in a way the CIA couldn't.
[Note: For those who don't know about Chance the Gardener, he is the lead character in the 1979 movie "Being There." Here's how Roger Ebert described him in his Chicago Sun-Times review:
["His mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life. But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man's tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires."]
Reagan spoke simply, his minions nodded wisely and responded, and the NED was born.
What is the NED? According to its Web site, it is "premised on the idea that American assistance on behalf of democracy efforts abroad would be good both for the U.S. and for those struggling around the world for freedom and self-government."
In other words, it's the champion of freedom-loving people everywhere. [APPLAUSE]
But one's suspicions of the NED become aroused almost immediately when one learns its chairman happens to be Vin Weber, former Republican congressman from Minnesota's 2nd District and ubiquitous man-about-town in Washington, D.C.
If I were an intemperate soul, I might describe Weber as one of those smarmy conservative types, like Randall Terry or Gary Bauer or the once-disgraced, now born-again, Robert Livington, who show up whenever there are true believers to be courted and a buck to be made.
But, being a cautious man, I'll restrain myself and say only that twerps like Weber make me believe there might be a God after all, the yin suggesting the existence of the yang.
Anyway, the NED is better described by its detractors than by its supporters. One detractor is the amazing Republican congressman from the Texas Gulf Coast, Dr. Ron Paul. Paul, who is more Libertarian than Republican, writes thus:
"The misnamed National Endowment for Democracy is nothing more than a costly program that takes US taxpayer funds to promote favored politicians and political parties abroad. What the NED does in foreign countries ... would be rightly illegal in the United States. The NED injects soft money' into the domestic elections of foreign countries in favor of one party or the other.
"Imagine what a couple of hundred thousand dollars will do to assist a politician or political party in a relatively poor country abroad. It is particularly Orwellian to call US manipulation of foreign elections promoting democracy.' How would Americans feel if the Chinese arrived with millions of dollars to support certain candidates deemed friendly to China? Would this be viewed as a democratic development?"
Rep. Paul continues by quoting Barbara Conry, a foreign policy analyist for the Cato Institute, a mostly libertarian think tank:
"NED, which also has a history of corruption and financial mismanagement, is superfluous at best and often destructive. Through the endowment, the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements ..."
Why should you and I care? Mainly because NED is a part of America's shadow government, yet another underground agency responsible to no one. It masquerades as a non-governmental organization, but in fact nearly all of its $35 million annual budget comes from Uncle Sam.
It's just another symptom of the cancer destroying American democracy. I thank William Safire and the man he worships for bringing it to our attention.
Finally, it should be noted that NED is bipartisan. Although it seems heavily loaded with scoundrels from the right, it also includes scoundrels from the left among its leadership. Hanky-panky is not limited to one political party or belief.
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist. His column appears Mondays. E-mail him at email@example.com.
©2003 SF Gate