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October 27, 2010

Michael Winship: All They Ask for Is an Unfair Advantage

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

All They Ask for Is an Unfair Advantage
By Michael Winship

I attended a screening this week of Alex Gibney's new documentary, Client 9. It's the story of the rise and fall of New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer, brought down by imperial hubris and a reckless penchant for ladies of the evening.

Gibney, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, creates a fascinating narrative. Both he and Spitzer readily concede that it was the former governor who did himself in; he haplessly provided the guns and ammo that polished him off. But there is a compelling case made suggesting that there were plenty of enemies, both in politics and business, with a motive to see him destroyed, plus the wherewithal and contacts to help grease the skids.

After all, it was Spitzer who, as state attorney general and self-appointed "Sheriff of Wall Street," went after corruption and greed in the finance industry, exposing investment bank stock inflation, securities fraud, predatory lending practices, exorbitant executive compensation and illegal late trading and market timing perpetrated by hedge funds and mutual fund companies. Some of these practices were, of course, major factors in the calamitous financial follies of 2008.

One of Spitzer's targets was Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, former chair and chief executive officer of the gigantic insurance company AIG. He was forced to resign by the AIG board in March 2005 after Spitzer charged Greenberg and the company with manipulative behaviors in violation of insurance and securities laws. Ultimately, criminal charges were dropped but when AIG collapsed during the '08 meltdown, ultimately receiving the largest of the Federal bailouts -- 182 billion taxpayer dollars - Greenberg said he was "bewildered" that things could have gone so wrong.

In Client 9, I was struck by a statement attributed to Greenberg, who in his AIG heyday supposedly was fond of joking, "All I ask for is an unfair advantage."
Just three days before the screening, The New York Times had reported that one of the largest donors to a foundation run by the US Chamber of Commerce is a charity run by Greenberg.

According to the Times, "The charity has made loans and grants [to the chamber's foundation] totaling $18 million since 2003. U.S. Chamber Watch, a union-backed group, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service last month asserting that the chamber foundation violated tax laws by funneling the money into a chamber 'tort reform' campaign favored by AIG and Mr. Greenberg. The chamber denied any wrongdoing.

"The complaint, which the chamber calls entirely unfounded, raises the question of how the chamber picks its campaigns, and whether it accepts donations that are intended to be spent on specific issues or political races."

Other major contributors of at least $17 million to the foundation between 2004 and 2008 include Goldman Sachs, the investment company Edward Jones, Alpha Technologies, Chevron Texaco and Aegon, a Netherlands-based, multinational insurance company "which has American subsidiaries and whose former chief executive, Donald J. Shepard, served for a time as chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce's board."

Almost all of these donations would have remained anonymous, as allowed by law, if not for some intensive digging by the Times into corporate foundation tax filings and other public records as part of a larger investigation into how the US Chamber of Commerce "has increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors to finance much of its legislative and political agenda. The chamber makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors. It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads."

Times investigative reporters Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire and Don Van Natta Jr. write that "the chamber has had little trouble finding American companies eager to enlist it, anonymously, to fight their political battles and pay handsomely for its help.

"...While the chamber boasts of representing more than three million businesses, and having approximately 300,000 members, nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors. Many of those large donations coincided with lobbying or political campaigns that potentially affected the donors."

All they ask for is an unfair advantage. Open any newspaper, magazine or political website and the coverage of corporate campaign largesse, much of it anonymous, bedazzles the mind. There's $75 million from the chamber, plus another $50 million or more in undisclosed donations to major conservative organizations -- as reported by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation -- that include the American Action Network, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the American Future Fund and the 60 Plus Association.

The progressive Campaign for America's Future reports that "Americans for Prosperity brags that they'll spend at least $45 million on the 2010 elections, while FreedomWorks plans to throw in another $10 million." Both organizations, backed by right-wing billionaire David Koch, are major funders of "all things Tea Party."

And get this - 23 companies that received a billion dollars or more in taxpayer bailout money donated $1.4 million to candidates in September - most of it to Republicans, although, as The Washington Post reports, "the TARP program was approved primarily with Democratic support. President Obama expanded it to cover GM and other automakers."

Yes, organized labor is throwing millions at the elections, too, but we know where that money is coming from - union dues (and in the interest of full disclosure, I'm president of a small AFL-CIO affiliated union, but one that neither contributes to nor endorses candidates).

When all is said and done, the Post reported Tuesday, using data from the Federal Election Commission and the watchdog Public Campaign Action Fund, outside interest groups could spend $400 million or more by Election Day. What's more, "House and Senate candidates have already shattered fundraising record for a midterm election and are on their way to surpassing $2 billion in spending for the first time... To put it another way: That's the equivalent of about $4 million for every congressional seat up for grabs this year."

All the big donors ask for is an unfair advantage. You may recall the story, usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, of how he propositioned a fellow dinner guest, asking if she would sleep with him for a million pounds.

She agreed, and then Shaw asked if she would do the same for ten shillings. "What do you take me for?" she angrily replied. "A prostitute?"

"We've established the principle," Shaw rejoined. "Now we're just haggling over the price."

With this election, Congress may establish once and for all that Shaw's is the only principle left that it still embraces, as long as the price is right.

By the way, Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer opens in New York November 5th and across the country on November 12th. Keep an eye out for it at a theater near you, as they say, or even on a TV near you - many cable systems are offering it on demand.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


October 20, 2010

Michael Winship: The Pulpit of Bullies

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Pulpit of Bullies
By Michael Winship

One of the most memorable moments in television coverage of American politics came during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Out on the streets, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations were attacked viciously by law enforcement officials in what later was described in an official report as "a police riot."

Inside the convention hall, tightly controlled by the political machine of the city's notorious Mayor Richard J. Daley, CBS correspondent Dan Rather was attempting to interview a delegate from Georgia who was being removed from the floor by men in suits without ID badges. One of them slugged Rather in the stomach, knocking him to the ground. As the reporter struggled to get his breath back, from the anchor booth, Walter Cronkite exclaimed, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan!"

It was an uncharacteristic outburst from America's Most Respected Newsman, indicative of just how terrible the violence was both inside and out and how shocking it was for a journalist to be so blatantly attacked while on the air by operatives acting on behalf of politicians.

As appalling as that 1968 assault was, thuggery is nothing new in politics; it transcends time, ideology and party. But what's even more disturbing in 2010 is how much of the public, especially many of those who count themselves among the conservative adherents of the Tea Party, is willing to ignore bullying behavior - and even applaud it - as long as the candidate in question hews to their point of view.

Here in New York State, of course, we have Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who combines the boyish charm of J. Edgar Hoover with the sunny quirkiness of Pol Pot. So extreme are Paladino's views, so volatile his temper, that even Rupert Murdoch's right wing New York Post has endorsed Democrat Andrew Cuomo, which is a bit like the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano dissing the Pope and singing the praises of Lutherans.

Doubtless this is in part because Crazy Carl, as he is affectionately known to many, almost came to blows with the Post's state political editor, the redoubtable Fred Dicker, shouting "I'll take you out, buddy!" at Dicker after the journalist asked Paladino for evidence to back up allegations the candidate was making against Cuomo and Paladino claimed the paper was harassing his out-of-wedlock daughter.

The Post had to admit that Paladino is "long on anger and short on answers... undisciplined, unfocused and untrustworthy -- that is, fundamentally unqualified for the office he seeks."

Okay, Paladino will lose, but in other parts of the country, Tea Party-supported candidates with a similar bullying, threatening attitude, or who seem to surround themselves with such people, are more likely to win. Republican Allen West, endorsed by Sarah Palin and John Boehner, is leading in his race against incumbent Democratic Representative Ron Klein in South Florida's 22nd Congressional District.

A retired Army lieutenant colonel, West resigned from the military, according to the progressive website ThinkProgress.org, "while facing a court martial over the brutal interrogation of an Iraqi man: according to his own testimony during a military hearing, West watched four of his men beat the suspect, and West said he personally threatened to kill the man. According to military prosecutors, West followed up on his threat by taking the man outside and firing a 9mm pistol near his head, in order to make the man believe he would be shot."

You can't make this stuff up: Last week, NBC News reported that West has been communing with a notorious Florida motorcycle gang, the Outlaws, which the Justice Department alleges has criminal ties to arson, prostitution, drug running, murder and robbery. And on Monday, West could be heard at a rally urging some bikers - also with Outlaw connections -- to "escort" out a Klein staffer who was video recording the event. "Threats can be heard on the videotape," said a reporter from NBC's Miami affiliate. "West supporters forced him to get back into his car."

The West campaign responded that "the latest attacks aimed at associating... Allen West with a criminal and racist gang are completely baseless and nothing short of a hatchet job." So what's with the photograph of him glad-handing bikers who according to NBC brag about their association with the Outlaws? And why did West tell a supporter to back off when concern was expressed about "criminal organization members in leather" appearing at West's campaign rallies?

Which brings us to Joe Miller, the Republican and Tea Party candidate for the United States Senate from Alaska. On Sunday, at a Miller town hall, private security guards hired by the campaign - two of whom were moonlighting, active duty military -- took it upon themselves to detain a reporter pursuing Miller with questions, placed him under citizen's arrest and handcuffed him - then threatened to detain two other reporters who were taking pictures and asking what was going on.

The plainclothes rent-a-cops, complete with Secret Service-type earpieces and Men in Black-style neckties and business suits, come from an Anchorage-based outfit called DropZone Security, which also runs a bail bond service and an Army-Navy surplus store - with one of those anti-Obama "Joker" posters pasted to its window. One-stop shopping for the vigilante militiaman in your life - kind of like that joke about the combination veterinarian-taxidermist: either way you get your dog back.

All of this would be funnier if not for the fact that this kind of hooliganism and casual trampling of First Amendment rights from people who claim to embrace the Constitution as holy writ is symptomatic of a deeper problem.

The anger of the electorate is understandable: politicians and politics as usual have given voters much about which to be mad; furious, in fact. But bullying is different. It comes from insecurity and fear, and lashes out with tactics of intimidation. To dismiss it as merely a secondary concern and say "I'll take my chances" as long as the candidates in question agree with you is dangerous. Scuffling with the press and others may seem minor, but it's just the beginning. In states where there is early balloting, already there are allegations of voter harassment, primarily in minority neighborhoods.

The only way to fight back against bullies and thugs is to stand up and tell them to go to hell. To do otherwise is to give an inch and prepare to be taken for the proverbial mile. That way lies madness. And worse.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


October 6, 2010

Michael Winship: Making Ends Meet in Coin-Operated Washington

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

Making Ends Meet in Coin-Operated Washington
By Michael Winship
(with apologies to the late, great Damon Runyon)


So I am in Washington, DC, our nation's capitol, admiring the buildings and the fine monuments and so forth, when I run into my very dear friend Gorilla Bagsley, whom I have not had the pleasure of seeing for many a year.

We shake hands with joy indeed and Gorilla says to me, come and have a drink for old time's sake. I have not imbibed in a very long time, I tell him, and fear that such a thing will give me gas, but he persuades me to come into an establishment he knows and to bend an elbow with a pint of something pale and weak while he imbibes a beverage of a more muscular variety.

I have not been with Gorilla since he and I were young and flimflamming the tourists around New York Harbor, telling them that the Statue of Liberty is green on account of it was a gift from the generous people of Mars. Now here he is in Washington, which to me is passing strange. For if Boston is the home of the bean and the cod, as the poet once said, then surely Washington is the home of the scheme and the fraud, and so I ask Gorilla, who I thought had gone the route of the straight and narrow, what he is doing in such a place.

"Oh," he says. "This is a wonderful place."

"Why?" I ask, and Gorilla replies, "Because, dear pal of mine, it is coin-operated."

"Crime does not pay," I point out to Gorilla. "At least as I recall, not the way you do it."

"That is a point upon which I must concur with you," he says. "Certainly my attempt to hold up a financial institution with a staple gun was not my finest hour. In fact, I have learned during my brief time in this burg that I should have applied for bailout money instead. But I assure you that I have changed. This is the land of opportunity. And coin-operated, as I have said."

"Coin-operated indeed," I reply. "Look at what is in the newspaper here. According to The Washington Post, and I quote: 'Interest groups are spending five times as much on the 2010 congressional elections as they did on the last midterms, and they are more secretive than ever about where that money is coming from. The $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms.'

"And get this," I continue, "It says, 'The trends amount to a spending frenzy conducted largely in the shadows.' Frankly, Gorilla, it is my belief that this is a far too dangerous place for one who has a curriculum vitae such as yours. I do not want your parole officer should be disappointed in you."

"I appreciate your concern," says Gorilla. "Truly I do. But trust me, everything is jake. I am in no danger of reapprehension."

"How can that be?" I respond. "Leave us face it, there is an awful lot of lettuce rolling loose in this fair city and I fear it is far too great a temptation for one as light-fingered as yourself. The Democratic National Committee raised more than $16 million last month even though they are supposed to be losing. The Center for Responsive Politics, an organization filled with honest types who I take to be very much on the level, says big oil and gas have spent more than $17 million on federal elections this year - so far. News Corp, the people who own Fox News, although they call themselves fair and balanced, has given a million bucks to the Republican Governors Association and another million to the US Chamber of Commerce which freely throws around money on pro-business candidates like a guy who is out of his mind about a doll."

Gorilla gets impatient with me and swats the air with his enormous mitt as if he is sending a fly into the next solar system. "You are not telling me anything I do not know," says he. "But I have found a legal way to benefit from this corporate largesse without threatening my always tentative freedom."

"And that is?" I query.

"Catering," Gorilla says. "All of these high rollers must eat when they are here, and all of these candidates have fundraisers here in the capital at which food is served -- even the ones who say Washington is a place in which they would not be caught dead, unless they are elected. I provide the edibles - pizza, doughnuts, little hot dogs wrapped in dough, fish eggs and sour cream on tiny slivers of toast or half a baby red potato - you name it. Here, taste."

He reaches into a bag and hands me a buttery croissant. With my mouth full, I ask, "And from this you are making a living commensurate with the income once earned from your past nefarious activities?"

"Better," Gorilla says, and pulls a piece of paper from his inside pocket. "Feast your eyes upon this. According to the website known as Politico.com, in just the last two weeks before the House adjourned so its members could go campaigning, more than 400 fundraisers were held in Washington for congressional candidates -- wine and bourbon tastings, beer blasts, barbecues, swanky cocktail parties, dinners and luncheons. Thousands of people, hungry for my finger food and pastries. After all these years, I am making it hand over fist."

"Well, good for you, Gorilla," I conclude, "and I certainly do not begrudge you your industriousness and good fortune, but I do not care what the Supreme Court says about limitless contributions. There has to be a new law so that these corporations cannot buy elections."

"That is a good and noble idea," he agrees, and brushes a trace of baking flour from his neatly tailored, plaid lapel. "But bad for business."

"This is important!" I yell, and then look up at the television above the bar. Fox News is reporting that the Statue of Liberty is green on account of it is a gift from the people of Mars. Protesters are at the scene, demanding the statue's destruction because it was donated by aliens and is much too close to Ground Zero.

I sigh and think maybe I will stay here with Gorilla Bagsley. He makes a very good croissant.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


October 5, 2010

Moyers Digital Archive: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has announced his retirement on the occasion of his 79th birthday. Archbishop Tutu has been a tireless voice for justice and racial reconciliation. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the struggle against apartheid. In 1999 Archbishop Tutu sat down with Bill Moyers, discussing the draining process of facing his country's past as he chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You'll find an excerpt of that conversation below and links to watch the full hour broadcast beneath the video window.
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Watch the full interview.


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