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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

US secretly tried to make deal with Goldman Sachs in wake of financial crisis

By John Byrne
Wednesday, September 30th, 2009 -- 9:11 am

Warren Buffett balked at conflict of interest


Vanity Fair will report in the next issue of the magazine that US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson — a former head of the investment bank Goldman Sachs — tried to orchestrate secretive deals in the midst of the financial crisis but got blowback from prominent investor Warren Buffett. The following press release was obtained by Raw Story; the magazine appears today on newsstands in New York and Los Angeles.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The government secretly tried to orchestrate a deal involving Goldman Sachs in the week following Lehman Brothers’ collapse and considered using the Federal Reserve to help support such a transaction, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports in the new issue of Vanity Fair.

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves, Sorkin reports that the deal, which was nearly consummated, would have merged Goldman Sachs and Wachovia. Henry M. Paulson, the Treasury secretary and former C.E.O. of Goldman, was deeply involved in the process, contacting both Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman’s current C.E.O., and a Wachovia board member, and strongly urged both to consider it. Wachovia’s C.E.O., Robert Steel, was a former vice-chairman at Goldman Sachs and Paulson’s former number two at the Treasury Department.

Sorkin reports that Warren Buffett was also contacted about investing in the merged company, but told a banker at Goldman that it would never happen. “By tonight the government will realize they can’t provide capital to a deal that’s being done by the former firm of the Treasury secretary with the company of a former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs and former deputy Treasury secretary,” Buffett said. “There is no way. They’ll all wake up and realize, even if it was the best deal in the world, they can’t do it.”

Jim Wilkinson, Paulson’s chief of staff, realized that such a deal would be a public-relations nightmare at the worst possible time—just as they were trying to pass TARP. “Hank, if you do this, you’ll get killed,” Wilkinson frantically told his boss. “It would be fucking crazy.” Paulson, he said, would lose credibility; he would be accused of lining the pockets of his friends at Goldman; the “Government Sachs” conspiracy theories would flourish.

Rodgin Cohen, a Sullivan & Cromwell lawyer who was advising both Wachovia, on parallel talks with Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, on its bank-holding-company application, was the first to suggest that the government attempt a shotgun wedding between Goldman and Wachovia, Sorkin reports. He offered up the idea in a phone call to Kevin Warsh, a governor at the Fed, saying that it wasn’t an officially sanctioned plan by his clients, just a friendly suggestion from an old-timer in the business. He said he knew it was a long shot—the “optics,” he acknowledged, would be problematic, given that Paulson and Wachovia C.E.O. Robert Steel were both former Goldman men—but it would solve everyone’s problems: Goldman would get the deposit base it needed, and Wachovia would have its death sentence stayed.

According to Sorkin, Goldman co-president Gary Cohn had agreed to engage in talks with Wachovia only on the presumption that the Fed would help Goldman guarantee some of Wachovia’s most toxic assets. And Warsh, in a bold gesture, made a commitment that the Fed would strongly consider it. Paulson spoke with Blankfein and told him to take the talks seriously. “If you go into this looking for all the problems and how much help you’re going to get, it’s never going to happen,” he said, adding, “You’re in trouble, and I can’t help you.”

Much to their dismay, Cohn and Steel spent 24 hours working on a deal that they thought was near closure—and had the support of the Fed—but which ultimately died after Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner decided against pursuing it, in part, because of the “optics” of Goldman’s ties to the government. “I’m sorry. I understand—I’m just as frustrated as you are. We just don’t have the money; we don’t have the authorization,” Warsh explained.

At the same time, Sorkin reports, the Federal Reserve also tried to push Goldman Sachs and Citigroup together, but Vikram Pandit, Citi’s C.E.O., rejected the idea. “Well, that was embarrassing,” Blankfein exclaimed after he got off of one phone call with Pandit.

Meanwhile, the government demanded Morgan Stanley merge with J. P. Morgan, an idea that both John Mack, Morgan Stanley’s C.E.O., and Jamie Dimon, J. P. Morgan’s C.E.O., did not want to pursue, but both held brief talks at the government’s urging.

Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner told Mack that he should be willing to sell his firm to J. P. Morgan for $1 a share. Mack, in an impassioned phone call with the three government leaders, rejected their demand: “There are 35,000 jobs that have been lost in this city between A.I.G., Lehman, Bear Stearns, and just layoffs. And you’re telling me that the right thing to do is to take 45,000 to 50,000 people, and put them in play, and have 20,000 jobs disappear? I don’t see how that’s good public policy.”

The November issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on September 30 and nationally on October 6.

The "Public Option" Is Not Dead


I would not be honest if I said the "public option" is alive and well. It is clearly in critical condition, but all hope is not lost. There is still significant support in the House for a strong "public option." In the Senate there appears to be 51 votes for a weaker "public option" like the one presented on Tuesday by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York). The problem is 60 votes are needed in the Senate without utilizing what is known as the reconciliation option.

It is now more than likely that the bill that will go to the floor of the Senate will not have a "public plan" in it. When the bill gets to the Senate, there will be another chance to amend it. Adding an amendment that will not prevent the bill from getting the 60 votes needed will not be easy, but it's not impossible.

The Sixty Votes

I agree with the critics that say there will not be 60 votes for a public option. What if the 60 members of the Democratic caucus committed to at least voting to end debate and then voted the way they wanted on final passage? I think the "public option" would have 51 votes, possibly more. Even 50 would be enough with Vice President Biden casting the tiebreaker.

I believe all Democrats should vote for a public option, but I know that the Blue Dogs like Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu will not. Let them do something for party unity and vote to end cloture before selling out to corporate interests. It probably won't happen, but it is worth fighting for.

You might be wondering why I didn't mention Max Baucus or Kent Conrad. Well, I think they would vote for cloture and would vote for the public option if they thought it would make it through the Senate.

"What If That Fails?"

The next option is reconciliation. This one is tricky and the Republicans are already preparing parliamentary maneuvers to block it. Every year the House and Senate pass separate budgets that then have to be reconciled. After a conference between negotiators from both the House and the Senate, a single bill is sent back to both chambers for final approval. In the Senate, only 51 votes are needed for passage. The bill cannot be held up by a cloture motion requiring 60 votes.

Sounds Simple

It is not. Under Senate rules, reconciliation can only be used on bills that have a significant budgetary impact. George Bush's controversial tax cuts used this method to get through the Senate. It's only fitting that the cornerstone of Barack Obama's economic policy be passed the same way.

Catastrophic Care

The Democratic Party will need catastrophic care if neither of these scenarios pan out. If the Democrats pass a health care reform bill that mandates that everyone must buy in and it doesn't include a "public plan" that will provide an affordable option, the backlash could be devastating. On the other hand, if they do succeed at providing an affordable option that will reduce health care costs, the Republican party will be the one on life support.

As bleak as the situation seems, surrender is not an option. There is still hope; there are still two rounds left; it's time to reach back and fight with everything we have left. Lives depend on it.

US Nukes Agency Pushes New Bomb Production


by: Matthew Cardinale | Inter Press Service

Nuclear explosion.
The department of Energy is pushing to modernize nuclear weapons. (Photo: Pierre J. / flickr)

Atlanta, Georgia - Despite statements by U.S. President Barack Obama that he wants to see the world reduce, and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration continues to push forward on a programme called Complex Modernisation, which would expand two existing nuclear plants to allow them to produce new plutonium pits and new bomb parts out of enriched uranium for use in a possible new generation of nuclear bombs.

Initiated under the George W. Bush administration, Complex Modernisation - referred to by anti-nuclear activists as "the Bomb-plex" - would "transform the plutonium and uranium manufacturing aspects of the complex into smaller and more efficient operations while maintaining the capabilities NNSA needs to perform its national security missions," according to a report by the NNSA in the Federal Register.

"The main purpose of the Complex Modernisation programme is to maintain nuclear production capacity for the U.S.," Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance told IPS, arguing that the talk of modernisation obscures the real objectives of the programme.

"There are pieces of the modernisation scheme that might address environmental safety or health concerns, or structural integrity of old buildings that might need to be looked at," he acknowledged.

But the more controversial aspect is the creation of a new nuclear production infrastructure at two sites. First is infrastructure for production of new plutonium pits - the central core of nuclear weapons - at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, to replace what the NNSA argues is an aging U.S. nuclear stockpile.

According to its 2009 10-year plan obtained by IPS, the new site could produce 80 plutonium pits per year.

Second, is expansion of enriched uranium processing at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

"Complex Modernisation" is the latest public relations slogan for the NNSA's plan; previously it was called Complex 2030 and then Complex Transformation.

The NNSA held two years of public hearings on the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) it was required to produce under the National Environmental Policy Act for Complex Modernisation.

At a hearing attended by this reporter in November 2006 at the Savannah River Site in North Augusta, South Carolina - which was initially considered for the new plutonium pits production - NNSA spokesman Ted Wyka told IPS the agency wanted "to identify a site to build and locate a consolidated plutonium centre, a place where we're going to do manufacturing, production, as well as research and development and surveillance."

"This (SPEIS process) isn't about the types and levels of weapons. That is a presidential decision which is funded by Congress. This is to develop the infrastructure, and to transform the infrastructure," Wyka said. "Our job is to make sure we have the right complex to meet those national security requirements."

The NNSA's final report on the SPEIS process - essentially approving its own "preferred alternative" - was published in December 2008 in the Federal Register, just two weeks before President Obama's inauguration. Here, the NNSA noted that, "With respect to plutonium manufacturing, NNSA is not making any new decisions regarding production capacity until completion of a new Nuclear Posture Review in 2009 or later."

Anti-nuclear activists are looking to Obama's upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) - which U.S. presidents have conducted at the beginning of their term since Bill Clinton - to set a new course for nuclear weapons policy for the U.S.

Obama will face a decision regarding whether to carry out the production of new plutonium pits, the planning of which was initiated under the Bush administration.

Obama will also face a decision about the proposed new uranium processing in Oak Ridge.

"They want to replace several buildings with one fancy new high-tech 3.5-billion-dollar building they're calling the Uranium Processing Facility," Hutchison said. "And similarly to what [the Federal Register stated] about the plutonium, although they haven't printed this yet, they're waiting on the NPR numbers to come in," before they seek to begin construction.

In the meantime, while Obama works on his NPR, the planning and design of the two new facilities continues.

Obama "included 55 million dollars in his budget for planning for the uranium processing facility in Oak Ridge. What people told him was, if you don't put this much in it, the whole [Complex Modernisation] programme collapses. We need enough money to keep the team together until we make the decision. Congress has doubled that; it's just gone through the process," Hutchison said.

However, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process specific to the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge was "put on hold", Hutchison said.

"Since February, every month they say they're going to release it next month. They can't put it out, because they need to say why they need to build this bomb plant or how big it needs to be. They can't do that without the numbers from the NPR," he noted.

"They have an internal struggle. Obama's saying and doing all these things moving towards a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, but the Department of Defence wants to keep building bombs. All the defence contractors, everybody's making money off of building bombs, they're in the DOD up to their necks. They want that number to come out," Hutchison said.

"They want us to get sucked into this word 'transformation,' as if we're forward looking; or 'modernisation' - what's wrong with modernisation? It's still the Bomb-plex. It's still a cover for allowing us to continue to make bomb parts like pits... it's old wine in new bottles," Bobbie Paul, executive director of Georgia Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), told IPS.

Meanwhile, as previously reported by IPS, Obama has made at least two important international speeches concerning nuclear weapons, in which he has said that the U.S. and the world must work towards being completely free of nuclear weapons.

"I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said in a speech in Prague on Apr. 5.

"To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," Obama said.

One hundred and eighty-one other nations have signed and 149 have ratified the treaty.

Last week, Obama became the first U.S. president to chair a U.N. Security Council summit, where a resolution was passed aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Obama has signaled his support for a significant shift towards disarmament as part of his upcoming NPR. In addition, Obama said he wants the U.S. and Russia to significantly reduce their nuclear weapons as part of the renewal of the Russia-U.S. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

However, so far Obama has not taken any steps to stop Complex Modernisation in its tracks and has not addressed the NNSA's plans to develop new nuclear weapons or refurbish old ones. Advocates worry this means new facilities to produce or refurbish nuclear bombs are still on the table.

"It's kind of double-talk. We're talking about reducing our arsenal and not being able to test, but we still have so many bombs on hair-trigger alert... [Complex Modernisation] is another title to give NNSA permission to build new bombs. It flies in the face of what he's told the rest of the world," Paul said.

Advocates worry that Obama - who treads a rocky path and wants a second term in office - may be willing to compromise on Complex Modernisation in return for ratification of the CTBT in the U.S. Senate.

Ratification - which failed in 1999 by 18 votes, receiving only 49 - will require at least 67 votes in the Senate. This means the entire Democratic Caucus, including the two independents, and at least seven Republicans will have to support the measure.

"There's been some talk, in order to get those treaties ratified, some people might allow some new nuclear research and production to go on. [Our position] is no, we stand by Obama. We need to do things consistent with a nuclear-free world," Paul said.

The NNSA did not immediately return two phone calls from IPS seeking comment.

US Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn't Add Up

US Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn't Add Up

by Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - The story line that dominated media coverage of the second Iranian uranium enrichment facility last week was the official assertion that U.S. intelligence had caught Iran trying to conceal a "secret" nuclear facility.

[Iran's Nuclear Chief Ali Akbar Salehi speaks during a press conference in Tehran. Salehi maintained there can be no bargaining about Iran's right to master the civilian nuclear fuel cycle under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ruled out a freeze on enrichment. (AFP/Atta Kenare)]Iran's Nuclear Chief Ali Akbar Salehi speaks during a press conference in Tehran. Salehi maintained there can be no bargaining about Iran's right to master the civilian nuclear fuel cycle under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ruled out a freeze on enrichment. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
But an analysis of the transcript of that briefing by senior administration officials that was the sole basis for the news stories and other evidence reveals damaging admissions, conflicts with the facts and unanswered questions that undermine its credibility.

Iran's notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the second enrichment facility in a letter on Sept. 21 was buried deep in most of the news stories and explained as a response to being detected by U.S. intelligence. In reporting the story in that way, journalists were relying entirely on the testimony of "senior administration officials" who briefed them at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh Friday.

U.S. intelligence had "learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised", one of the officials said, according to the White House transcript. The Iranians had informed the IAEA, he asserted, because "they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid..."

Later in the briefing, however, the official said "we believe", rather than "we learned", in referring to that claim, indicating that it is only an inference rather than being based on hard intelligence.

The official refused to explain how U.S. analysts had arrived at that conclusion, but an analysis by the defense intelligence consulting firm IHS Jane's of a satellite photo of the site taken Saturday said there is a surface-to-air missile system located at the site.

Since surface-to-air missiles protect many Iranian military sites, however, their presence at the Qom site doesn't necessarily mean that Iran believed that Washington had just discovered the enrichment plant.

The official said the administration had organized an intelligence briefing on the facility for the IAEA during the summer on the assumption that the Iranians might "choose to disclose the facility themselves". But he offered no explanation for the fact that there had been no briefing given to the IAEA or anyone else until Sept. 24 - three days after the Iranians disclosed the existence of the facility.

A major question surrounding the official story is why the Barack Obama administration had not done anything - and apparently had no plans to do anything - with its intelligence on the Iranian facility at Qom prior to the Iranian letter to the IAEA. When asked whether the administration had intended to keep the information in its intelligence briefing secret even after the meeting with the Iranians on Oct. 1, the senior official answered obliquely but revealingly, "I think it's impossible to turn back the clock and say what might have been otherwise."

In effect, the answer was no, there had been no plan for briefing the IAEA or anyone.

News media played up the statement by the senior administration official that U.S. intelligence had been "aware of this facility for years".

But what was not reported was that he meant only that the U.S. was aware of a possible nuclear site, not one whose function was known.

The official in question acknowledged the analysts had not been able to identify it as an enrichment facility for a long time. In the "very early stage of construction," said the official, "a facility like this could have multiple uses." Intelligence analysts had to "wait until the facility had reached the stage of construction where it was undeniably intended for use as a centrifuge facility," he explained.

The fact that the administration had made no move to brief the IAEA or other governments on the site before Iran revealed its existence suggests that site had not yet reached that stage where the evidence was unambiguous.

A former U.S. official who has seen the summary of the administration's intelligence used to brief foreign governments told IPS he doubts the intelligence community had hard evidence that the Qom site was an enrichment plant. "I think they didn't have the goods on them," he said.

Also misleading was the official briefing's characterization of the intelligence assessment on the purpose of the enrichment plant. The briefing concluded that the Qom facility must be for production of weapons-grade enriched uranium, because it will accommodate only 3,000 centrifuges, which would be too few to provide fuel for a nuclear power plant.

According to the former U.S. official who has read the briefing paper on the intelligence assessment, however, the paper says explicitly that the Qom facility is "a possible military facility". That language indicates that intelligence analysts have suggested that the facility may be for making low-enriched rather than for high-enriched, bomb-grade uranium.

It also implies that the senior administration official briefing the press was deliberately portraying the new enrichment facility in more menacing terms than the actual intelligence assessment.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offer the day after the denunciation of the site by U.S., British and French leaders to allow IAEA monitoring of the plant will make it far more difficult to argue that it was meant to serve military purposes.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that Iran never intended to keep the Qom facility secret from the IAEA but was waiting to make it public at a moment that served its political-diplomatic objectives.

The Iranian government is well aware of U.S. capabilities for monitoring from satellite photographs any site in Iran that exhibits certain characteristics.

Iran obviously wanted to make the existence of the Qom site public before construction on the site would clearly indicate an enrichment purpose. But it gave the IAEA no details in its initial announcement, evidently hoping to find out whether and how much the United States already knew about it.

The specific timing of the Iranian letter, however, appears to be related to the upcoming talks between Iran and the P5+1 - China, France, Britain, Russia, the United States and Germany - and an emerging Iranian strategy of smaller back-up nuclear facilities that would assure continuity if Natanz were attacked.

The Iranian announcement of that decision on Sep. 14 coincided with a statement by the head of Iran's atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, warning against preemptive strikes against the country's nuclear facilities.

The day after the United States, Britain and France denounced the Qom facility as part of a deception, Salehi said, "Considering the threats, our organization decided to do what is necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities. So we decided to build new installations which will guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities which will never stop at any cost."

As satellite photos of the site show, the enrichment facility at Qom is being built into the side of a mountain, making it less vulnerable to destruction, even with the latest bunker-busting U.S. bombs.

The pro-administration newspaper Kayhan quoted an "informed official" as saying that Iran had told the IAEA in 2004 that it had to do something about the threat of attack on its nuclear facilities "repeatedly posed by the western countries".

The government newspaper called the existence of the second uranium enrichment plan "a winning card" that would increase Iran's bargaining power in the talks. That presumably referred to neutralizing the ultimate coercive threat against Iran by the United States.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.

Hey Rahm: Twist An Arm in Support of the Public Option, Not Against It

Hey Rahm: Twist An Arm in Support of the Public Option, Not Against It

Trumka Scheduled To Meet With Rahm Today To Cut Deal on Public Option

by Jane Hamsher

We hoped it wasn't true. We hoped that when Richard Trumka committed to back a public option and threatened to withhold support from Democrats who wouldn't vote for one that it wasn't just pre-convention rhetoric.

But then the big guns came out -- Baucus decided that rather than taxing the rich, he would tax the health care plans that seriously affected AFL-CIO workers who had given up wage hikes in exchange for comprehensive health care coverage over years in contract negotiations. When Gerry McEntee rightly called the Baucus bill "bullshit" from the floor of the convention, Nancy Pelosi was then dispatched to say they were considering the same thing in the House.

I defy anyone to find me one single example of the White House twisting one arm for a public option. Just one. But when Rahm and Trumka meet today, it will be after a month of very serious threats to the AFL-CIO carried out at the highest levels. It's the kind of "arm twisting" that only the executive branch is capable of, and it has been done to crush support for a public option, not opposition.

I wrote recently about the fact that people within the AFL-CIO were getting tremendous pressure from the White House to push Trumka into backing down. And sources familiar with the situation say that since the other unions outside the AFL have already caved and are kicking Rahm's trigger football, Trumka feels he has little support for his position and no choice but to relent.

Contact the AFL-CIO and let them know that you support Richard Trumka and his commitment to the public option. Let him know that staying true to that commitment is extremely important to those of us who strongly support labor.

Jane Hamsher is the founder of firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on The Daily Beat, AlterNet, The Nation and The American Prospect.

Obama Is No FDR, Much Less Gandhi

Obama Is No FDR, Much Less Gandhi

by Eric Stoner

On the eve of the G-20 summit last week, President Barack Obama gave a long interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which he said that even during his days as a community organizer in Chicago he was never a big fan of mass protests.

With the clear intention of discouraging those who might join the looming demonstrations against the G-20, Obama explained that he was always a believer that "focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference."

While I personally never jumped on the Obama bandwagon, such a flippant dismissal of protest by the president is disappointing nevertheless, and slightly reminiscent of how his predecessor wrote off the millions who took to the streets before the invasion of Iraq.

Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman noted in response: "Of course, Mr. Obama's answer would be news to those who marched in countless civil rights, women's rights and anti-war demonstrations over the decades. It would also be news to those who filled stadiums to hear candidate Obama's stump speeches in 2008."

Not surprisingly, his remarks were also not well received by the protesters who had arrived in Pittsburgh.

"You have revealed the real Obama!" Clarence Thomas, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said during a rally demanding new jobs programs, according to the Wall Street Journal. He said the president's statement was "very, very disrespectful" to the civil rights and other social movements.

For all of his flaws, Obama is clearly an intelligent person who must have known better.

It would not have taken an incredible investigative feat to discover that the protesters descending upon Pittsburgh were doing so for very "concrete" reasons that touch their daily lives in very real ways.

They came to advocate for greater assistance for everyday people during these tough economic times, for more serious government action on global warming ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have already taken such a staggering human and financial toll.

In fact, as a general rule of thumb, most people -- whether they are diehard activists or not -- don't normally travel great distances to face ominous riot police firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and deafening sound cannons, unless they have been deeply, personally affected by the issues being protested.

And given the global financial meltdown that has hit working people so hard, can anyone really say that those who critique the entire capitalist system don't have a point?

Rather than being a mere "abstraction," as Obama claimed, capitalism is an economic system that functions on a set of rules that we created, which inevitably leads to massive inequalities between the haves and have-nots and the easily avoidable deaths of millions around the world every year who simply cannot afford basic medical care or food. It rewards greed and is based on a belief that continual, limitless economic growth is not only possible, but necessary.

The planet's atmosphere and natural resources, however, are finite and being quickly exhausted by the developed world's gluttonous consumption.

In his new book, All My Bones Shake, Robert Jensen succinctly sums up our predicament: "Capitalism is fundamentally inhuman, antidemocratic and unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (though much of it of questionable value) in exchange for our souls, for our hope for progressive politics, and for the possibility of a decent future for children. Either we change or we die -- spiritually, politically, literally."

Obama's dismissal of mass nonviolent action was disingenuous for other reasons as well. Behind his desk in his Senate office, Obama prominently displayed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

In an interview last year, he explained that the portraits were there "to remind me that real results will not just come from Washington, they will come from the people." And only weeks before the G-20, during his "controversial" address to school children, the president brought up Gandhi, calling him "a real hero of mine."

Could anyone possibly argue with a straight face that King, who was killed while planning the Poor People's Campaign, would not be on the streets with those calling for economic justice? Would Gandhi not oppose the diversion of $700 billion this year from meeting people's basic needs to fund the Pentagon and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?

The interview with Obama also revealed a growing chasm between his approach to social movements and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to whom he is widely compared.

After listening to the concerns of the legendary labor organizer and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph during a meeting, as the famous and perhaps apocryphal story goes, FDR replied: "I agree with everything that you've said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit ... But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it."

During his presidential campaign, Obama even used this story. He told his supporters that he was just one person who could not make the changes they wanted to see by himself. Obama's final message was clear: "Make me do it."

Now that Obama is in the White House, however, he is singing a different tune. Rather than encouraging grassroots protest to help push the public debate and further a progressive legislative agenda as Roosevelt did, Obama is unfortunately publicly trying to quash pressure from the left.

As a counter to the recent mobilization of right-wing tea-baggers, it would seem that now is as good a time as ever for the president to embrace the protesters who are championing at least some of the causes that he once claimed to believe in.

Instead, Obama disgracefully sent in the militarized police -- with the National Guard on the ready -- to silence their dissent.

Eric Stoner is a freelance writer based in New York and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His articles have appeared in The Nation, NACLA Report on the Americas, and the Indypendent. He can be reached at: ericstoner1 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Banks Too Big to Fail? Break ’Em Up

Banks Too Big to Fail? Break ’Em Up

by Dave Zweifel

The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy recently gave its first-ever "Golden Throne Award" to the president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, Edward Yingling.

Suffice it to say that Yingling wasn't thrilled.

The Golden Throne, you see, is more like a that-really-takes-a-lot-of-chutzpah award - as in the big bankers nearly bankrupting the American economy and now spending big bucks lobbying to convince Congress that it shouldn't enact tighter regulation. The award is named in honor of the gold toilet that former Merrill Lynch Chairman John Thain had installed in his office while spending $1.2 million remodeling it when his company was going broke.

It was a year ago this month that Merrill Lynch, AIG and Lehman Brothers all tanked, exposing the house of cards that the nation's financial giants had constructed during the past several years. Lehman went out of business, Bank of America bought Merrill (with the government's help), and AIG was propped up with tens of billions in taxpayer loans.

In the aftermath, Yingling and the other big banking industry lobbyists have been fighting everything from attempts to protect consumers from credit card abuse to reforming the way bankers pay their top executives.

As U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said at Fighting Bob Fest earlier this month, "These guys have absolutely no shame."

Not one of them has ever apologized for the financial mess they created, causing hardships for people on pensions and throwing millions of Americans out of work. If there were any justice, the Vermont senator added, several of these people would be serving time in jail because what they did was nothing short of theft.

After being rescued by the federal government, they now want the government to keep its nose out of their business - as if we can ever trust these guys again.

The chutzpah of the financial giants is endless. After giving bonuses to employees to sell risky mortgages and then slicing and dicing them into incomprehensible derivatives that fed the financial meltdown, they now - according to the Wall Street Journal - are devising similar instruments to buy life insurance policies from individuals and package them for sale.

Particularly galling is the banking association's opposition to reforming the Pell Grant program, which provides financial assistance to needy college kids. With backing from the Republicans in Congress, the banks have had a cool deal for themselves. The feds provided private banks with capital and then paid them a subsidy to lend that capital to the students. Plus, the government guaranteed the loans so banks don't have any risk.

The program has been worth about $8 billion to the banks every year. There would be hell to pay if poor people received such largesse.

Congress is now finally getting around to having the government make the loans directly to the students, saving about $87 billion over 10 years. That money can be used to help more students get help to attend college. The banking giants, with Ed Yingling leading the way, don't like that.

As Sanders said, "We were told we had to bail these guys out because they were too big to fail. Well, if they're too big to fail, then they're too big to exist. I say break them up."

That, indeed, would be the thing to do.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

Poll Shows Public Wants Medicare for All

Poll Shows Public Wants Medicare for All

by Glen Ford

Despite the infamous Max Baucus Senate committee's long-anticipated rejection of even a fig leaf of a public health care "option," public opinion remains remarkably firm in support of allowing everyone access to a comprehensive government health plan. A New York Times/CBS News survey last week provided the best polling evidence in recent months that most people favor a public option that is a lot more "robust" than anything the Congress is offering, aside from straight-up single payer.

The poll once again confirms that something very much like single payer remains an idea whose time has come. After all these month's of the Obama Administration's attempts to shrivel into near nothingness the very concept of health care "reform," and despite the mad howlings of Republicans about the evils of "socialized medicine," two-thirds of the American people still support a Medicare-like government health care plan. Unlike some recent surveys, the language of the pollsters' question was straightforward and unambiguous:

"Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans?"

That is the definition of a very "robust" public health care option. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were in favor.

It's a pity that the New York Times and CBS News neglected to ask how the public feels about a full-blown single payer plan, which has for years commanded strong majorities. But the poll does show conclusively that Americans overwhelmingly endorse expanding Medicare to all who want it - and let the private insurers sink or swim on their own.

Still, it is a wonderment that, with all the disinformation from the Hard Right, and almost a year of backroom dealing, backstabbing and dissembling from President Obama and other corporate Democrats, who have mangled reform into a giant subsidy for the privateers, the people still know what they want: Medicare for all, at the very least.

The tragedy is, none of the bills under serious consideration by House and Senate committees provides anything close to what the public desires. As my colleague Bruce Dixon has written, the "robust" public option does not exist in any practical sense. (See BAR, "The President, Progressives, and the Myth of the Robust Public Option," September 9, 2009.) A version of Medicare for all does exist, in the form of Rep. John Conyers' HR 676, the Enhanced Medicare For All single payer bill - but the measure is anathema to President Obama, who spent most of his energies marginalizing Conyers and his allies in the early months of the administration. Obama has consistently (and viciously) tried to depict single payers and their "robust" fellow travelers as the "extremist" lefty mirror images of rightwing "tea-baggers." Yet at the end of the day, the public center of gravity on health care remains situated in the political realm of the Congressional Progressive and Black Caucuses. Obama is way off to the Right somewhere, in the general vicinity of his soul mate Sen. Baucus, whom the president early on empowered as his health care torchbearer (more like fire-quencher).

The NYT/CBS poll shows the public is not in the least confused about what it wants from the president and the congress on the health care front. Rather, they are befuddled about what Obama wants (55 percent say he has not clearly explained himself), and near-totally up in the air about what the Republicans want (76 percent don't understand the GOP's position). The more the people learn about both, the less they'll like either of them.

Which brings me to the most uplifting aspect of the poll: It is the best recent evidence that Obama has not succeeded in narrowing public perceptions of the scope of health care "reform" to fit his own puny, corporate-vetted positions. The real reform genie is permanently out of the bottle, and he is quite "robust."
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.

Fantasies of Representation in America

I have the fantasy where every elected official has to live on food stamps. And they have to walk into a grocery store and use them without telling the clerk that they really aren't on food stamps.

Fantasies of Representation from Maine to Montana

by Pat LaMarche

Sen. Olympia Snowe wants a trigger. Too bad the rest of the gun is pointed at your health. The Associated Press had a story Monday with a headline that read: "Snowe is the Woman with the Clout on Healthcare." They say it's because she's the lone Republican on the Finance Committee who may vote for the health care reform bill if her "trigger" gets put in place. The trigger is the mechanism that will release the public option bullet only if the insurance companies act greedy five or so years after health care reform is passed. Judging from past behavior I doubt there's any question how those companies will act, but the senator insists on waiting.

That means that her clout comes from the likelihood she'll do the bidding of the private insurers who have brought the U.S. health care system to its knees by denying claims and disallowing procedures and turn her back on the people who overwhelmingly desire that the public option be in the bill from the get-go.

How sad for the voter. A health care activist friend of mine said that Olympia Snowe committing billions of tax dollars and borrowed funds to this health care bill while at the same time ignoring the sentiment of more than three-quarters of the electorate - and not just the national electorate but Maine voters as well - is truly taxation without representation.

My friend doesn't believe that tax dollars matter anywhere near as much to the Finance Committee - upon which Sen. Snowe sits - as special interest dollars matter. I agree.

I have a fantasy. Well, actually I have a bunch of them. I bet you do too. Ours may be a little different and most of mine are pretty predictable. Like the fantasy where every elected official has to live on food stamps for a month. And they have to walk into a grocery store and use them without telling the clerk that they "really aren't on food stamps."

Another one of mine is each and every member of Congress and each state legislature has to fill out the paperwork for the veterans in their state. And that if any veteran is denied services or benefits that the elected officials then pay those benefits out of their own pockets until the problem is resolved.

I have another fantasy that no elected officials are allowed to send their children or grandchildren to anything but public school. And the kids don't get extracurricular activities like art, sports or music unless the school department provides it.

Oh and one of my favorites is that anyone who puts down the migrant populations in the U.S. must do the job that the migrant came here to do for one month. They have to pick grapes, clean toilets or work in slaughter-houses, etc. And they have to spend that month learning the migrant's language as well.

But back to my fantasy about the senators on the Senate Finance Committee: I fantasize that every member of the committee who is against the public option or against universal health care has to pay back just $10 of insurance lobby contributions for each person from their state without access to health care.

You can look up statistics on the under- and uninsured at Families USA, a Web site using U.S. Census Bureau figures. In Olympia Snowe's case, Maine has about 114,000 uninsured. So she'd have to return $1.14 million to the health care lobby. Sen. Max Baucus, the chair of the committee, his home state of Montana has 279,000 uninsured so he'd have to pay back $2.79 million.

No problem! Daily Kos reports that "Sen. Olympia Snowe raised $1,147,630 from the health and insurance sectors over the course of her career." She could keep that trigger amendment with a clean conscience if she turned the money back and still have enough left over for a nice trip to a spa or something.

And committee chair Sen. Baucus who wants to fine people who don't buy health insurance? Well, the Washington Post says that between 2003 and 2008 he's taken $3 million from the insurance industry. This much money going to our elected officials ought to trip our trigger so that we wake up and realize that they don't represent us.

Pat LaMarche lives in Yarmouth, Maine and is the author of "Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States."

Democrats Spineless on Health Care, Etc.

Michael Moore Tells Democrats: 'Find Your Spine' on Health Care

by Markham Heid

WASHINGTON - Sans video camera, filmmaker Michael Moore on Tuesday turned his megaphone on the current health care system and those Blue Dog Democrats he claims are "dogging" the health care debate.

Moore, an advocate of a single-payer, government-run health care system, called the current setup "cruel," and said that two-thirds of Americans support a single-payer system and would punish those Democrats who steer the conversation away from that option.

"To the Democrats in Congress," Moore said, "find your spine. Read the polls. And see us coming."

The contentious documentarian spoke at the Washington offices of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group. Moore has a new film called "Capitalism: A Love Story" slated for release Friday, and says he's using the media attention to push for single-payer health care.

When asked why the single-payer option hasn't won much support in the health care debate in Washington, Moore said Democrats "haven't felt the heat."

Moore also criticized liberal voters, who he said lacked the motivation of Republicans and "wouldn't get up at 6 a.m." like their conservative counterparts.

"There's a lot of anger out there that's simmering beneath the surface," said Moore, adding that the Democrats haven't tapped that fury.

Echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous words regarding associations between the military and private business, Moore took aim at what he called the "Health Care Industrial Complex."

The filmmaker also applauded President Barack Obama on several fronts, but said the president needs to "hit the reset button, and go back to the drawing board" with the health care debate.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee rejected the "public option" for revamping the nation's health care. The public option would have created a government run insurance company to offer low-cost health insurance coverage to those who could not afford private plans.

The vote, in which five Democrats joined all 10 of the panel's Republicans, is a rejection of one of Obama's central proposals for improving coverage for millions of Americans without health insurance.

During the entire congressional debate over healthcare, no legislation to create a government-run health system like those in other developed nations has garnered significant support.

Moore's other well-known movies include: "Roger and Me," about General Motors chairman and chief executive Roger Smith; "Bowling for Columbine," about gun violence following the mass killings at a Colorado high school, and "Fahrenheit 9/11," about America after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Heid, a graduate student in journalism from Ann Arbor, Mich., covers health care policy.)

America Has Rotted Away and Obama Won't Save Us

Published on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 by The Times Online/UK

Gore Vidal: ‘We’ll Have a Dictatorship Soon in the US’

The grand old man of letters Gore Vidal claims America is ‘rotting away’ — and don’t expect Barack Obama to save it

by Tim Teeman

A conversation with Gore Vidal unfolds at his pace. He answers questions imperiously, occasionally playfully, with a piercing, lethal dryness. He is 83 and in a wheelchair (a result of hypothermia suffered in the war, his left knee is made of titanium). But he can walk ("Of course I can") and after a recent performance of Mother Courage at London's National Theatre he stood to deliver an anti-war speech to the audience.

[(The Times/UK)](The Times/UK)
How was his friend Fiona Shaw in the title role? "Very good." Where did they meet? Silence. The US? "Well, it wasn't Russia." What's he writing at the moment? "It's a little boring to talk about. Most writers seem to do little else but talk about themselves and their work, in majestic terms." He means self-glorifying? "You've stumbled on the phrase," he says, regally enough. "Continue to use it."

Vidal is sitting in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, where he has been coming to stay for 60 years. He is wearing a brown suit jacket, brown jumper, tracksuit bottoms; his white hair twirled into a Tintin-esque quiff and with his hooded eyes, delicate yet craggy features and arch expression, he looks like Quentin Crisp, but accessorised with a low, lugubrious growl rather than camp lisp.

He points to an apartment opposite the hotel where Churchill stayed during the Second World War, as Downing Street was "getting hammered by the Nazis. The crowds would cheer him from the street, he knew great PR." In a flash, this memory reminds you of the swathe of history Vidal has experienced with great intimacy: he was friends with JFK, fought in the war, his father Gene, an Olympic decathlete and aeronautics teacher, founded TWA among other airlines and had a relationship with Amelia Earhart. (Vidal first flew and landed a plane when he was 10.) He was a screenwriter for MGM in the dying days of the studio system, toyed with being a politician, he has written 24 novels and is hailed as one of the world's greatest essayists.

He has crossed every boundary, I say. "Crashed many barriers," he corrects me.

Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he reveals, he regrets his change of heart. How's Obama doing? "Dreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we've had in that position for a long time. But he's inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He's acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism." America should leave Afghanistan, he says. "We've failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it." The "War on Terror" was "made up", Vidal says. "The whole thing was PR, just like ‘weapons of mass destruction'. It has wrecked the airline business, which my father founded in the 1930s. He'd be cutting his wrists. Now when you fly you're both scared to death and bored to death, a most disagreeable combination."

His voice strengthens. "One thing I have hated all my life are LIARS [he says that with bristling anger] and I live in a nation of them. It was not always the case. I don't demand honour, that can be lies too. I don't say there was a golden age, but there was an age of general intelligence. We had a watchdog, the media." The media is too supine? "Would that it was. They're busy preparing us for an Iranian war." He retains some optimism about Obama "because he doesn't lie. We know the fool from Arizona [as he calls John McCain] is a liar. We never got the real story of how McCain crashed his plane [in 1967 near Hanoi, North Vietnam] and was held captive."

Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in "a black city" (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama's intelligence. "But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred - religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they're fascists."

Another notable Obama mis-step has been on healthcare reform. "He f***ed it up. I don't know how because the country wanted it. We'll never see it happen." As for his wider vision: "Maybe he doesn't have one, not to imply he is a fraud. He loves quoting Lincoln and there's a great Lincoln quote from a letter he wrote to one of his generals in the South after the Civil War. ‘I am President of the United States. I have full overall power and never forget it, because I will exercise it'. That's what Obama needs - a bit of Lincoln's chill." Has he met Obama? "No," he says quietly, "I've had my time with presidents." Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: "Bang bang." He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. "Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital," he says in a wry, dreamy way.

Vidal now believes, as he did originally, Clinton would be the better president. "Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, they're good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to."The Republicans will win the next election, Vidal believes; though for him there is little difference between the parties. "Remember the coup d'etat of 2000 when the Supreme Court fixed the selection, not election, of the stupidest man in the country, Mr Bush."

Vidal says forcefully that he wished he'd never moved back to the US to live in Hollywood, from his clifftop home in Ravello, Italy, in 2000. His partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, who died in 2003, collated a lifetime's-span of pictures of Vidal, for a new book out this autumn, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare (an oddly clunky title). The cover shows what a beautiful young man Vidal was, although his stare is as hawkish as it is today.

He observes presidential office-holders balefully. "The only one I knew well was Kennedy, but he didn't impress me as a good president. It's like asking, ‘What do I think of my brother?' It's complicated. I'd known him all my life and I liked him to the end, but he wrecked his chances with the Bay of Pigs and Suez crises, and because everyone was so keen to elect Bobby once Jack had gone, lies started to be told about him - that he was the greatest and the King of Camelot."

Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. "Ask an American what they know about Sweden and they'd say ‘They live well but they're all alcoholics'. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefited us many times over." Instead, America has "no intellectual class" and is "rotting away at a funereal pace. We'll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn't realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush."

Vidal adds menacingly: "Don't ever make the mistake with people like me thinking we are looking for heroes. There aren't any and if there were, they would be killed immediately. I'm never surprised by bad behaviour. I expect it."

While materially comfortable, Vidal's was not a happy childhood. Of his actress and socialite mother Nina, he says: "Give her a glass of vodka and she was as tame as could be. Growing up is going to be difficult if the one person you hate is your mother. I felt trapped. I was close to my grandparents and my father was a saint." His parents' many remarriages means that even today he hasn't met all his step-siblings.

He wrote his first novel, Williwaw, at 19. In 1948, he was blacklisted by the media after writing The City and the Pillar, one of the earliest novels to deal graphically with homosexual desire. "You'll be amazed to know it is still going strong," he says. The "JT" it is dedicated to is James "Jimmy" Trimble, Vidal's first love and, he once said, the love of his life. "That was a slight exaggeration. I said it because there wasn't any other. In the new book there are wonderful pictures of him from our schooldays. He was a great athlete." Here his voice softens, and he looks emotional, briefly. "We were both abandoned in our dormitory at St Alban's [boarding school]. He was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima [in 1945] because of bad G2 [intelligence]."

Vidal says Trimble's death didn't affect him. "No, I was in danger of dying too. A dead man can't grieve a dead man." Has love been important to him? "Don't make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men's relationships are like heterosexual ones. They're not." He "wouldn't begin to comment" on how they are different.

In 1956 he was hired by MGM, collaborated on the screenplay for Ben Hur and continued to write novels, most notoriously Myra Breckenridge about a transsexual. It is his satires, essays and memoirs - Live From Golgotha, Palimpsest and most recently, Point to Point Navigation - which have fully rounded our vision of this thorny contrarian, whose originality springs simply, and naturally, from having deliberately unfixed allegiances and an enduring belief in an American republic and railing sadness at how that ideal has been corrupted.

Vidal became a supportive correspondent of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeigh's act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. "He was a true patriot, a Constitution man," Vidal claims. "And I was torn, my grandfather [the Democrat Senator Thomas Gore] had bought Oklahoma into the Union." McVeigh claimed he had done it as a protest against tyrannical government. The writer Edmund White took the correspondence as the basis for a play, Terre Haute (the jail McVeigh was incarcerated in before he was executed in 2001), imagining an encounter between the bomber and Vidal charged with desire.

"He's a filthy, low writer," Vidal says of White. "He likes to attack his betters, which means he has a big field to go after." Had he wanted to meet McVeigh? "I am not in the business of meeting people," Vidal says. "That play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at his [White's] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how it's the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks I'm another queen and I'm not. I'm more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism."

Vidal says that he hates labels and has said he believes in homosexual acts rather than homosexual people. He claims his relationship with Austen was platonic (though they reputedly met at a legendary New York bath-house). He was once quoted as saying that he'd had sex with a 1,000 men by the time he was 25. It must have been a little strange for Austen, Vidal's life companion, to source those pictures of Trimble, his first, perhaps only, love.

Vidal puts on a scornful, campy voice. "People ask [of he and Austen], ‘How did you live together so long?' The only rule was no sex. They can't believe that. That was when I realised I was dealing with a public too stupid by half. They can't tell the difference between ‘The Sun rose in the East' and ‘The Sun is made of yeast'." Was sex important to Vidal? "It must have been yes."

He is single now. "I'm not into partnerships," he says dismissively. I don't even know what it means." He "couldn't care less" about gay marriage. "Does anyone care what Americans think? They're the worst-educated people in the First World. They don't have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke." You could have been the first gay president, I say. "No, I would have married and had nine children," he replies quickly and seriously. "I don't believe in these exclusive terms."

Impaired mobility doesn't bother him - he "rose like a miracle" on stage at the National - and he doesn't dwell on mortality either. "Either you accept there is such a thing or you're so dumb that you can't grasp it." Is he in good health? "No, of course not. I'm diabetic. It's odd, I've never been fat and I don't like candy, which most Americans are hooked on."

There is a trace of thwarted ambition about him. "I would have liked to have been president, but I never had the money. I was a friend of the throne. The only time I envied Jack was when Joe [Kennedy, JFK's father] was buying him his Senate seat, then the presidency. He didn't know how lucky he was. Here's a story I've never told. In 1960, after he had spent so much on the presidential campaign, Joe took all nine children to Palm Beach to lecture them. He was really angry. He said, ‘All you read about the Kennedy fortune is untrue. It's non-existent. We've spent so much getting Jack elected and not one of you is living within your income'. They all sat there, shame-faced. Jack was whistling. He used to tap his teeth: they were big teeth, like a xylophone. Joe turned to Jack and he says, ‘Mr President, what's the solution?' Jack said, ‘The solution is simple. You all gotta work harder'." Vidal guffaws heartily.

Hollywood living proved less fun. "If there was a social whirl, you can be sure I would not be part of it." He does a fabulous impression of Katharine Hepburn complaining about playing the matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer, which he wrote. "I hate this script," he recalls Hepburn saying . "I'm far too healthy a person to know people like this." Vidal snorts. "She had Parkinson's. She shook like a leper in the wind."

I ask what he wants to do next. "My usual answer to ‘What am I proudest of?' is my novels, but really I am most proud that, despite enormous temptation, I have never killed anybody and you don't know how tempted I have been."

That wasn't my question, I say. "Well, given that I'm proudest that I haven't killed anybody, I might be saving something up for someone." A perfect line: we both laugh.

Is he happy? "What a question," he sighs and then smiles mischievously. "I'll respond with a quote from Aeschylus: ‘Call no man happy till he is dead'."

Imagine No Religion? Atheist Movement Gains Momentum


Rights and Liberties

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is using quotes from famous atheists to spread the message in its national billboard campaign.

This month, San Francisco's public transit system was enlisted in the battle against organized religion.

A publicity campaign by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to fighting for the separation of church and state, covered the sides and interiors of 75 city buses with the anti-religion quips of assorted atheist wordsmiths.

Here's Mark Twain: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Clarence Darrow: "I don‘t believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

Richard Dawkins: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction."

Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind: "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."

The bus campaign is part of a wider push by FFRF to promote atheism around the country. In the past few years, the organization has put up billboards in Denver, Detroit and Seattle. FFRF billboards have even popped up in the Bible Belt, asking Alabama residents to "Imagine no Religion."

AlterNet spoke with FFRF co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaynor about the organization's efforts to push atheism – or "free thought," as Gaynor says -- in the most religious industrialized nation on earth. Also discussed was: why many atheists know more about the Bible than do a lot of Christians; if liberal Christians are worse than right-wing fundamentalists; and whether "New Atheists" Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are annoying.

AlterNet: What's the thinking behind the San Francisco bus campaign?

Annie Laurie Gaynor: It's free thinking. We want to bring our message to the masses. And we've been censored for so long. For decades we tried to put up billboards, and we were denied access.

That's slowly changing -- we have a national billboard campaign, and now we're moving to the buses, and that's taken from the British bus-sign campaign, which made a big splash. So that's been a global movement.

We're not the only ones doing it. But we have a very generous member of our group on the West Coast, suggesting that we use her donation either to place bus signs in San Jose or San Francisco. And so, it was cheaper in San Francisco, so that's where we went, and we wanted to also reach tourists. Also, we knew we were going to be reaching a very sympathetic audience.

AlterNet: You've also put up billboards in places like Alabama and one of the more conservative parts of Southern California. What's the reaction there?

ALG: Usually we get a pretty good reaction. We get crank mail on our state/church litigation and death threats over our work with state/church. But mostly, with the billboards, we hear from people who like us. But in Alabama they were more hateful. Our Alabama chapter head got about 50 not-very-nice e-mails. But she also got some nice e-mails. More nasty than nice though.

And there was an interview on one of the local TV stations with what, frankly, looked like a stereotyped redneck, where I felt a little shiver of fear for our chapter head because he was saying, "They don't belong here. They shouldn't be here." But we've never had any violence. We've never had a violent attack on a billboard. The one from Alabama is unscathed. We now have it up in Indianapolis.

So we've been surprised at the lack of problems with billboards. But we have been censored. For example, we put one up in Rancho Cucamonga, [Calif.].

And then we have a lawsuit where we are claiming city censorship: The city asked to please take our billboard down (they were engaged with negotiations over billboard space). And they're claiming it wasn't censorship but just conveying information. So that was quite a shock. To me that's like something that would happen in a dictatorship, not a democratic republic. That's the only such incident.

AlterNet: Why do you think that happened? Personal beliefs of city council members, or pressure from the community?

ALG: There were two [TV] stations that covered it. We made a big splash. I believe it was one particular church that some city member officials might have belonged to that were getting calls.

So I think that was sort of an insular, provincial reaction and that they had done this before with another billboard. That wasn't an establishment-clause issue there. Where they didn't like the billboard, and they'd called another company and the company had taken down the billboard. So, I think they are little bit out of control that they're not able to recognize First Amendment rights. We're pursuing that very seriously.

We didn't sue the billboard company. Didn't want to discourage billboard companies from accepting our billboards in the future. We've been waiting 30 years because of censorship from billboard companies (not the government.)

AlterNet: Why are billboard companies willing to use your campaigns now?

ALG: Now, this year, the economy. But we started doing this at the end of 2007, and I think the country is finally changing and waking up, and we are very slowly seeing the kind of change that Europe saw some time ago. We're becoming more secular. Fifteen percent of the population is nonreligious, and that is reflected in billboard companies, in their understanding of their audiences. They're less fearful of an immediate negative reaction from the public.

Also, they probably recognize, you put up one billboard, it gets lost in the shuffle. Maybe they have a sense of proportion they didn't have before. Like we have seven up right now in Detroit, in a very religious community. We'll have seven or nine in Las Vegas next month.

When we get turned down by one company, we find another. But not always; there have been some cities where we haven't been able to get billboards up. Bloomington, [Ind.] is dominated by Lamar. We've worked with all them over the country. But the one in Bloomington wouldn't work with us.

So we couldn't get one in liberal Bloomington, Ind., so we took it to Indianapolis. And the same thing happened in Grand Rapids, [Mich]. That's another national company that we've worked with all around the country, but they said, "Our clients are really the community," and they won't like your billboard, so we're not gonna put it up. And we thought, boy, Grand Rapids needs to hear our message. We had state/church problems we were trying to educate about.

We're still encountering this squeamishness about free-thought messages. That it's taboo to criticize religion, and we're not part of the marketplace of ideas.

AlterNet: That's interesting, it seems to be common knowledge that Americans rarely drag themselves to church -- even if they identify as religious. So obviously, a huge percentage of the population doesn't take religion very seriously. Yet, a lot of times the efforts of public, outspoken atheists are met with horror. Why?

ALG: This has always been a paradox, because the Bible's the best-seller that's never read. Our members probably know more about what the Bible says than most religious people – many of them read it, and then became atheists.

It's paradoxical, but I think that people seem to think there's a civic religion that if you believe in a god or Jesus, you don't have to go to church but you're still supporting religion. And they feel that it's absolutely taboo to be an atheist or to criticize religion.

There was a relatively recent study -- 2005 -- by the University of Minnesota, where they took polls on unpopular people. This included gays, Arabs, blacks, women -- analyzing, would you vote for these people, what do you think about them?

They found the bias against atheists and agnostics dating to the 1960s had not changed, while so many attitudes have greatly changed, fortunately, about African Americans, gays, even Arab Americans.

We're at the bottom of the totem poll when it comes to social acceptance in America.

And I think about Julia Sweeny, from Saturday Night Live. She has that one-woman play, "Letting Go of God," and she likes to tell this story about how she called her parents, who were devout Catholics, and at some point told them, "I don't believe in a god anymore," and they kind of accepted it.

But then she spoke at some event, and a story went out around the wire referring to her as an atheist, and her mother called her up and said, "this was too much!" The word atheist: that's what not believing in a god means, but until her mother heard the label, she was able to tolerate it. It's a pejorative in our society. And we're trying to change that.

Our members are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, but we're trying to change that kneejerk reaction that somehow people who do not believe in a god are bad people. Or you don't know any of them, or we're immoral; that's the greatest stereotype that we face.

I don't know why these people, who don't go to church, think atheists are so bad, but most people don't go to church in our society but still have these prejudices.

When I talked to the researcher, Penny Edgell at the University of Minnesota, what did she think accounted for this? What she said was, she believes most of these people don't realize they know atheists and agnostics. And that's 'cause we're afraid to speak out. We don't wanna ruin a party or speak out socially -- don't want to offend. We're being polite.

And I think free-thinkers are becoming more direct. They realize it's time, like the gay movement, to come out of the closet.

AlterNet: There's a very common argument, which essentially tells public atheists to shut up: Its main premise is that very vocal atheists are as annoying as very vocal religious people. For example, one columnist called your work with the billboards more like "evangelism than a fight for civil rights." What's your reaction to that argument?

ALG: Well. Boy, I don't like the term evangelist. But it isn't just a fight for civil rights; it's a fight for social acceptance. What we're being told is constantly to shut up. We're constantly told to leave the country. That's what most of our crank mail says.

If you don't like religion, God, Jesus, you're not an American, leave the country. It's just a joke. We ran a page of crank mail a few months ago in our newspaper, Free Thought Today. To make it more humorous, we put all the different countries with all the different quotes together. There were some new ones for me; usually you hear Russia, and you hear China. But this had Pakistan, Afghanistan. Even Canada! Which is a lovely country.

But there's a belligerence that it's wrong to say atheist. I think a lot of religious people think that the word alone is … that we don't have the right to those views, because that reflects badly on them. If we say, "We don't believe in a god," that puts them on the defensive.

And they get angry at us, I guess. But I think that there's a backlash against Dawkins, et al., and they don't deserve it. I think Richard Dawkins and all these people are doing a wonderful service. It's time to speak out and own our dissent from religion. And free thought is an intellectually respectable position. Religious people are the ones who should be on the defensive.

They're the ones who think there's a god. Well, they should prove it. They're the ones who think that the Bible is a holy book. Well, then, we might have to disagree.

And if they would confine it to their own homes and churches, that would be one thing. But when we are constantly fighting a battle against this campaign to inflict dogma in our law, that's a different thing.

That's why our group started. We were so fearful of the campaign to put dogma into our law, like abortion, gay rights and so on. Look how stem-cell research was held up, just because President Bush wanted to kowtow to the Catholic hierarchy.

That's so destructive of progress. It's that war between science and religion that we are continually having to refight. The fact that 50 percent of Americans reject evolution is a frightening figure. And we have a billboard on Darwin -- because it's his bicentennial year -- to fight that.

AlterNet: What do you think about more progressive religious leaders and groups that try to reconcile science and religion?

ALG: Well, we're all for that, if they understand that evolution should be taught in schools. We're not going into the churches, dragging people out of the pews. We're not going knocking on doors like the Mormons and everybody else. We're live and let live, to a certain point.

But, we do think that speaking out and reaching the masses through the mass media is a very powerful thing. Many people who join our group call and e-mail us and say, "I thought I was the only atheist in North Dakota." They feel so isolated. And they feel afraid to let their neighbors know they don't believe.

And we have a classic story out of Georgia, where we have this chapter in Alabama and they have a meeting every year that gets people from all across the country, especially the South, and there were two neighbors, who'd lived side by side for years, and both of them members of our group and not religious. And they never knew it until they saw each other at this meeting at our chapter because they were afraid of the reception, of being stigmatized, or turned into neighborhood pariahs.

And that's sort of a classic case of people, especially in the South, they don't know friend or foe. And they're afraid of the damage that can be done if they're known to not be religious. Especially if they have businesses. It's easier to be a free-thinker in San Francisco. Yet we think a lot of people in San Francisco recognize especially after Proposition 8 the harm of the religion lobby. There's a lot of anger about that. We hope they'll sign up.

AlterNet: There's a very popular argument nowadays that the aggressive atheism of Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens -- at least the way it's presented in the mainstream media -- hurts your cause because it alienates people. And your strategy is to also aggressively present atheist views. What do you think about that?

ALG: I think if people argue that Dawkins hurts the cause of atheism, they have not had the great pleasure of meeting him. Because he's an absolutely charming person. He's somebody whom people, when they hear him lecture, are abashed because they understand his scientific credentials. Maybe they think, "I can't go on talking about the spook in the sky that I believe in, in front of him." And that's good.

AlterNet: Let's go with Hitchens then.

ALG: Well, Hitchens on religion, great. I don't agree with him on many of his other views on social issues. I don't think Hitchens is particularly representative of the typical free-thinker, but I admire his book God Is Not Great and his debating talents. I don't agree with him on abortion or war.

But I don't think he attempts to represent the free-thought movement. I think he represents his own views, and I think that our members agree with that book. But he has a whole body of other work that's quite different.

Free-thinkers are all over the place on other issues. I think Dawkins' social views are more in line with most free-thinkers.

AlterNet: But even as far as their religious views, they're not saying, "Oh, it's bad that Mormons mobilized against same-sex marriage efforts, but otherwise they can believe whatever they want, and we can believe whatever we want." The effort is to alter public views about religion in general ...

ALG: Well, I know former Mormons, and they are damaged people. At least, they felt that religion did so much harm in their lives. And it's such a patriarchal religion. There's every reason for us to criticize these kinds of religions.

If you look at the power of the pope -- with one word he could really end the population problem by endorsing the use of contraception, and everywhere he goes he creates more misery. That's the history of the Catholic Church.

Not just when it comes to reproductive rights, but with warfare and persecution. Think of the women killed as witches because of one Bible verse. It was also the Protestants. So they're not … they have a lot of the blame. But religion has a lot to answer for.

So yes, I'm not going to have an argument with my neighbor next door because she goes to the Episcopalian church. We get along fine. She's pretty liberal. But if someone asks me about doctrine and how I disagree with it, I'm going to be very open. I think it's very important.

There should not be a taboo where you can talk about everything else and debate everything else, but somehow it's not allowed to talk about religion and analyze it, like we do everything else. Making known that you dissent is not allowed.

It's just indoctrination from an early age to not only believe in religion, but to think that it's a sin to criticize religion. So how can you overcome that unless you are very public, writing books like the God Delusion, unless you're putting up bus signs and billboards and doing your own media, which is what we're doing? And we think it's a public service.

And we think there's nothing more important than working for the First Amendment. And I think those of us who are not religious tend to be purists on this topic of separation of church and state. So we think freedom depends on free-thinkers.

And free thought is a term we like. It's an umbrella term. It means people who form their opinion based on reason, rather than faith, tradition and authority. And so that encompasses atheists, agnostics a few deists in the classical sense, like Thomas Paine.

And we very much believe in what we do around here. We don't believe in a god, but we believe in this world. And that's the message behind "imagine no religion." Think about how much better off we would be without clinging to the supernatural and expecting a god to do what we need to do for ourselves.

Investing all your best energies in some other afterlife instead of this world. And being concerned about how we leave this world for our descendants. I think religion has been so destructive in that regard, taking our minds off the real world. Just working in the imaginary realm.

AlterNet: What about the very progressive religious groups that use that ideology to perform services in the real world?

ALG: Well, I think that's great, and they get a lot of tax exemptions to do good works. It's not usually a huge percentage of any church budget. The Unitarian Universalists … I don't consider them … when we're talking about the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we're usually not including them, because they're creedless. And the UCC has been good on gay marriage, and that's great.

But it's taking a long time for the other Christian groups to catch up on that issue, and you know most of the mainstream Protestant groups support abortion rights, just not the Catholics! But the evangelicals and the fundamentalists combined, they're the people calling the shots on the social agenda.

So I'm wondering if the fact that the liberal religionists share the same Bible isn't really just making them as responsible for the fact that they're trying to get that Bible into our lives. In the sense the very liberal religionists give credibility to religion.

So we've had a whole clique of former ministers in our membership. We had a couple of former Episcopalian priests. One of them is still alive, in San Francisco. That's Dick Hewittson. But we have another member who also left the Episcopalian fold. And he has given speeches to our group where he felt we should be harder on the liberal religionists than the fundamentalists, because they know more, and in a sense are more responsible. That they're picking and choosing the verses they like and trying to ignore the rest, but that they give credibility to the fundamentalists.

So we get along with them. But they're using that same Bible. They're also trying to say there's this authority in the sky that we owe some kind of allegiance to. And we don't … we're like Margaret Sanger, whose motto is: "No gods, no monsters," and we think that kind of master/servant hierarchy is a bad thing.

AlterNet: You don't think there's any context in which religion can do some good?

ALG: Oh yes. People can do good things in the name of religion, but professor Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate in physics a few years ago -- he became our first awardee of this award called "the Emperor Has No Clothes." We give it to the person who makes his or her dissent from religion known publicly. And he was our first awardee.

He made this really astute observation: He said that good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good peopleto do bad things, that takes religion.

And that's the danger. Because if you give up your mind to some other supernatural mind, you have to obey its laws and dicates. And you want to be a good person, and you're told be religious to be a good person, think of what you can do in the name of religion, and we've seen that throughout history. They thought they were doing the best thing when they were drowning and burning witches, and killing people in the Crusades.

And so I think that's a very memorable way to look at it.

But, as I said, we're all for the … we get along. We're all for the free exercise of religion in this country. But our establishment clause means freedom from religion in our government.

AlterNet: So not that there should be no religion. But in an ideal world?

ALG: In an ideal world … we just want people to just for a moment imagine what if there were no religion? And some people are just horrified at the idea.

We're just thinking, well, you would put all your focus on this world. And you wouldn't be fighting wars over what you imagine God wants you to do. And why can't we just be humans and stop trying to pretend there's a divinity up there telling us what to do.

And that's a good exercise for everyone.

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Tana Ganeva is an associate editor at AlterNet.