Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.
Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, "I stand here today humbled by the task before us." He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the "greed and irresponsibility" of "some"), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.
Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America's past, "obscure in their labor," who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He maintained that Americans "must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." And that renewal, he said, would demand "bold and swift" action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.
Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them--that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." Obama can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." This was a speech of progressive notions--without explicitly championing them.
It was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s. It came in the middle of the inauguration celebration held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. And its bearer was Garth Brooks. The man who has epitomized country music, the official music of Red-State America, was hailing the election of a man who represents what many people with a Red-State mentality oppose: an America that embraces liberal attitudes of diversity and tolerance, that does not equate Ivy League-style education with effete elitism, and that does not hold on to traditions to block social change and progress. True, Brooks is no rock-ribbed redneck. His 1992 song, "We Shall Be Free." essentially endorsed gay marriage. But when he performed the old Isley Brothers soul classic, "Shout," before a massive crowd of Obama supporters, you could almost hear some Red-Staters wail, "They've turned our Garth into a black guy!" When he finished, Brooks doffed his cowboy hat toward President-elect Barack Obama, who sat with his family to the side of the stage.
The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was doneat least for nowand that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in "This Land Is Your Land." This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was too rah-rah for Guthrie's liking. (Beyoncé then hit the stage and belted out "God Bless America.")
Earlier in the day, minutes before HBO threw the on-switch for its taping, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson delivered an invocation that probably would be considered heretical by many fundamentalists. He began:
George W. Bush gave his final speech to the nation on Thursday night. I skipped it to see my daughter, who has known no other president, perform with her school chorus. But when I later sat before my television to see how the speech was being punditized on the cable news shows, I was surprised. The water-landing of a US Airways flight in New York City dominated the coverage. There was little chatter--almost nothing--about Bush's farewell.
After watching the speech on the White House website, I understood why. It was flat and short. Bush said little of interest. He dwelled mostly on 9/11 and the so-called war on terror, once again (and for the last official time) characterizing the invasion of Iraq as part of his effort to take "the fight to the terrorists." He suggested that although the Iraq war was the subject of "legitimate debate," there "can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Was the nation's safety ensured because Bush invaded Iraq and did not finish the fight in Afghanistan? No doubt, he and his ever-dwindling band of defenders will continue to insist that it is so--just as a rooster might insist there is a connection between his crowing and the rising of the sun. And Bush defended himself for having been "willing to make the tough decisions"--as if making hard choices is the same as making wise ones.
Eric Holder Jr., by all accounts, is a decent, smart, caring, competent fellow. President-elect Barack Obama's pick to be attorney general had a brilliant career in public service: he graduated from Columbia University law school, worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was a trial attorney at the Justice Department, a Superior Court judge in Washington, DC, a US attorney, and, then deputy attorney general. He has served on various nonprofit boards: George Washington University, the American Constitution Society, Morehouse School of Medicine, Save the Children Foundation, the District of Columbia's Police Foundation, and the Innocence Project. He's been a member of Concerned Black Men for over 25 years. He also, in a way, represents what's wrong with Washington.
That's not because of Holder's infamous role in the Marc Rich pardon. That episode--which Holder will certainly be asked about during confirmation hearings, which are scheduled to begin Thursday--was a case of Washington pay-to-play. There's little doubt that Rich, a fugitive financier indicted for tax evasion, racketeering, and trading with the enemy (Iran), was able to win that last-minute pardon from President Clinton (with Holder, as deputy attorney general, leaning slightly in its favor) because he had hired a former Clinton White House counsel to argue his case and because Rich's ex-wife had pledged money to Clinton causes.
Holder's role in the Rich pardon may not have been instrumental, but it was a mistake--a terrible way to cap off decades of public service. But he is a poster child for something perhaps more pernicious and extensive in the nation's capital: selling out. Months after the Clinton administration ended, Holder went to work for the influential law firm and lobbying shop of Covington and Burling. (He also joined the boards of Eastman Kodak and MCI.)
Holder was doing what so many routinely do in Washington: cashing in. He took years of experience he had gathered as a public servant and rented it to corporations accused of serious wrongdoing. He smoothly went from doing good to doing well. In 2008, according to his confirmation questionnaire, he made $2.1 million at Covington and Burling. And he expects in 2009 to bring in over $2.5 million, including his separation payment.
AP reported on Monday that President-elect Barack Obama, after moving into the White House next week, will issue an executive order to begin the process that would lead to the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. With that in the news, I was asked to appear on Hardball to debate conservative talk-show host Michael Smerconish, who supports the use of waterboarding. Here's the clip:
At least Smerconish, a lawyer, agreed with one basic point: the US government, despite what the Bush-Cheney administration has contended, has no right to hold anyone--not even enemy combatants--indefinitely. Perhaps Obama is right: conservatives and liberals--that is, those of us who don't take our constitutional advice from Dick Cheney's office--can find some common ground.