December 2007

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I watched a good documentary today about a rising star in American politics: Cory Booker. The movie, Street Fight, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. I knew Cory at Stanford, which is to say, I met him a couple times. I’m sure he would not remember me but I remember him and I wish I had sent him a campaign donation in 2002 when he was running for mayor of Newark (the election that is the subject of the film) or before that when he ran for city council.

A football player at Stanford (not sure if he could be called a star), Rhodes Scholar, and graduate of Yale Law School, Booker moved into the projects in Newark to immerse himself in the problems he wanted to solve. And in 2002 he decided to take on the incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, an old guard black politician who had created a political machine in Newark. Cory is black too but Mayor James said he was white — and Republican, and Jewish, and gay, and just about anything else he could think of to dissuade Newarkians from supporting him.

Sharpe James was supported by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, the Governor of New Jersey and much of the establishment. Booker was supported by Cornel West, Spike Lee, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and the idealists. Sharpe James mounted a campaign of intimidation as Booker challenged his kingdom of old-school patronage. Businesses that supported Booker received visits from the police and code enforcement. Booker signs were selectively torn down by city workers. Booker supporters were called terrorists. The James campaign wouldn’t let the filmmaker shoot Mayor James, even at public events. At one point, Booker’s campaign gets raked over the coals because the campaign co-manager gets caught at a private strip club. It later comes out that Mayor James himself had been a patron at the club.

It was new politics versus old machine politics. And old black politics versus new black politics. The film is quite a study of elections and race in urban America. You can read more about the movie at the director’s website. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends.

In 2002, Cory Booker lost the election. Booker ran again in 2006 and at the last second, Mayor James decided not to run for re-election. Booker won in a landslide and is now the Mayor of Newark. Mayor James and some of his lackeys are now the targets of corruption probes. I don’t know how much if any progress Booker is making in reforming and revitalizing Newark. If anyone can do it, he can. If he can’t do it you have to wonder if anyone can.

Keeping with the political theme, I watched another election movie today called Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? This documentary was also about a young idealistic guy trying to get elected. His name is Jeff Smith and at first glance he is about as charismatic as his name. But he has an interesting background and like Cory Booker, he has worked hard to better his community. He decides to run for Congress, for the seat of retiring Dick Gephardt. He has no chance. His main opponent is a guy who seems to completely lack substance, energy and originality. But what the opponent does have is a special last name, Carnahan. The Carnahans are like Kennedys in Missouri, a political dynasty. Jeff Smith claws his way into the race because he does have substance and energy. I won’t tell you what happens but in its details, this movie does a great job of showing how hard it is to run and win a campaign.

You may have heard that somebody asked Governor Huckabee on the campaign trail how he explained his rise in the polls:

HUCKABEE: There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. (Applause) That’s the only way that our campaign can be doing what it’s doing. And I’m not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite. There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has.

Apparently, God wants Huckabee to be President.

Ron Paul had a great line about Huckabee’s whole Christian campaign offensive: “It reminds me of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He says, ‘when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.’”

Thank God for John McCain. Nothing has scared me more during this Presidential campaign than hearing the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” roll all too easily off Mitt Romney’s tongue. McCain is the only Republican candidate who is saying the right things on torture. I’ll probably vote for the Democrat regardless of who it is but if McCain is the Republican nominee I might think twice. Here is an exchange from the 11/28/07 YouTube/CNN Republican Presidential Candidate Debate:

YouTube question: Hello, gentlemen. I’m Andrew, and I’m a college student from Seattle, Washington. Recently, Senator McCain has come out strongly against using waterboarding as an instrument of interrogation. My question for the rest of you is, considering that Mr. McCain is the only one with any firsthand knowledge on the subject, how can those of you sharing the stage with him disagree with his position?

Anderson Cooper [moderator]: Governor Romney?

Mitt Romney: Well, he certainly is an expert and I certainly would want to get his counsel on a matter of this nature, but I do not believe that as a presidential candidate, it is wise for us to describe precisely what techniques we will use in interrogating people.

I oppose torture. I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form.

Cooper: Is waterboarding torture?

Romney: And as I just said, as a presidential candidate, I don’t think it’s wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use.

And that is something which I would want to receive the counsel not only of Senator McCain, but of a lot of other people.

And there are people who, for many, many years get the information we need to make sure that we protect our country.

And, by the way, I want to make sure these folks are kept at Guantanamo. I don’t want the people that are carrying out attacks on this country to be brought into our jail system and be given legal representation in this country. I want to make sure that what happened …

(Applause)

… to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists. He was captured. He was the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 tragedy. And he turned to his captors and he said, “I’ll see you in New York with my lawyers.” I presume ACLU lawyers.

(Laughter)

Well, that’s not what happened. He went to Guantanamo and he met G.I.s and CIA interrogators. And that’s just exactly how it ought to be.

(Applause)

Cooper: Senator McCain?

(Crosstalk)

(Unknown): There were reports Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded.

McCain: Well, governor, I’m astonished that you haven’t found out what waterboarding is.

Romney: I know what waterboarding is, Senator.

McCain: Then I am astonished that you would think such a — such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our — who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that’s not torture. It’s in violation of the Geneva Convention. It’s in violation of existing law…

(Applause)

And, governor, let me tell you, if we’re going to get the high ground in this world and we’re going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We’re not going to torture people.

We’re not going to do what Pol Pot did. We’re not going to do what’s being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me.

Cooper: Governor Romney, 30 seconds to respond.

(Applause)

Romney: Senator McCain, I appreciate your strong response, and you have the credentials upon which to make that response. I did not say and I do not say that I’m in favor of torture.

I am not. I’m not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we’re able to do and what things we’re not able to do. And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some 35 years.

I get that advice by talking to former generals in our military…

Cooper: Time.

Romney: … and I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me, as a presidential candidate, to lay out all the issues one by one…

Cooper: Time.

Romney: … get questioned one by one: Is this torture, is that torture?

Cooper: Senator McCain…

Romney: And so, that’s something which I’m going to take your and other people’s counsel on.

Cooper: Senator McCain, 30 seconds to respond.

McCain: Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war. Because it’s clear the definition of torture. It’s in violation of laws we have passed.

And again, I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not “24″ and Jack Bauer.

Life is interrogation techniques which are humane and yet effective. And I just came back from visiting a prison in Iraq. The Army general there said that techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn’t think they need to do anything else.

My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America.

(Applause)

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