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.
This is the story of two Marys. Both are in their early 60s, heavyset, with curly reddish hair. But for years they have worked on opposite ends of the same issues. Mary McFate is an advocate of environmental causes and a prominent activist within the gun control movement. For more than a decade, she volunteered for various gun violence prevention organizations, serving on the boards of anti-gun outfits, helping state groups coordinate their activities, lobbying in Washington for gun control legislation, and regularly attending strategy and organizing meetings.
Mary Lou Sapone, by contrast, is a self-described "research consultant," who for decades has covertly infiltrated citizens groups for private security firms hired by corporations that are targeted by activist campaigns. For some time, Sapone also worked for the National Rifle Association.
But these two Marys share a lot in common—a Mother Jones investigation has found that McFate and Sapone are, in fact, the same person. And this discovery has caused the leaders of gun violence prevention organizations to conclude that for years they have been penetrated—at the highest levels—by the NRA or other pro-gun parties. "It raises the question," says Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "of what did she find out and what did they want her to find out."
Using her maiden name, McFate, Sapone began posing as a gun control activist in the mid-1990s. Bryan Miller, the executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a grassroots gun control group, recalls first meeting her in the summer of 1998. The NRA was holding its annual convention in downtown Philadelphia, and the event drew the usual bevy of protesters. Among them was a middle-aged woman then living in Pennsylvania who made a point of introducing herself to Miller. In the following years, Miller would remember this encounter well, as he watched McFate rise from a street protester to a figure known nationally within his movement. She became a leader of Pennsylvanians Against Handgun Violence and later a board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania. According to staffers at several gun violence prevention groups, she worked on the Million Mom March in 2000, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC, to demand stricter gun laws. She joined the board of Freedom States Alliance, a network of nine state-based gun control organizations. At States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a nationwide coalition of anti-gun groups, she was the director of federal legislation, an unpaid position that placed her in charge of the outfit's lobbying efforts in Washington. In that role, she collaborated with national organizations including the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center.
On the front page is news (or confirmation) that Aberto Gonzales' Justice Department was run by partisan hacks who illegally denied jobs to applicants who were not Republicans and Christian conservatives.
The Associated Press is reporting that the "Environmental Protection Agency is telling its pollution enforcement officials not to talk with congressional investigators, reporters and even the agency's own inspector general, according to an internal e-mail." AP adds: "The EPA is currently under pressure from several congressional committees to disclose documents relating to its position on global warming and its denial of a petition by California to control greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. Last week, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson denied a request to appear before two Senate committees to discuss whether the agency's decisions comply with its staff's technical and legal recommendations."
And Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, was indicted for making false statements on his financial disclosure forms to conceal $250,000 in goods and services he received from an oil company that sought official assistance from Stevens. The 84-year-old Stevens used to chair the powerful Senate appropriations committee.
Cronyism that undermines good government, a gag order that attempts to block the flow of information needed for oversight, and a case of (alleged) personal corruption in which a legislator exploited his office to line his own pocket--it's as if the seven-and-half years of the Bush presidency was boiled down into one news cycle. The only thing missing is a war sold on false pretenses.
On Monday, Barack Obama, fresh off his triumphant overseas trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Europe, turned to the homeland's number-one concern: the faltering economy. He was in Washington to hold a meeting with his top economic advisers. Here's how his campaign described what would happen:
Senator Obama will be joined by leading figures from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans to talk about the recent developments in the economy: job loss, financial markets, and the rising costs of oil, food and other commodities....Participants of the early afternoon meeting include: Warren Buffett, Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt and other economic leaders.
Most of the agenda is pretty obvious. And campaigns are supposed to do the obvious. But there's one economic issue that Obama ought to consider raising with these economic leaders and with the voters: transparency. So much of the economy now takes place in dark corners, where traders and speculators develop, buy and sell financial instruments that are unregulated and, perhaps worse, barely understood, except by the small number of players who trade them. This is partly what brought on the subprime meltdown. (See my description of swaps here.) Even former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin did not understand the financial products that led to the housing credit crisis.
So here's a populist issue for Obama: the U.S. economy is too important to be placed in the hands of wheeler-dealers who in the shadows engage in transactions that have the potential to send waves of harm throughout the highly-interconnected financial world. Americans are entitled to feel insecure when they see that the economy can be so severely affected by a few big firms that go off the reservation, thanks to the imaginative machinations of a small number of traders. More transparency, more regulation--whatever the policy prescriptions are (and they will be technical and hard for most of us to understand), Obama could by addressing this issue gain a political advantage over John McCain, who tends to celebrate the workings of the markets.
These days there is very good reason for commoners to be suspicious of the markets. If Obama can speak to that, it could make for good policy and good politics.
On Friday morning, on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, guest-host Susan Page made me--really, really, really made me--and the two other commentators (PR man/syndicated columnist Tony Blankley and Politico's Jeanne Cummings) predict John McCain's running-mate pick. None of us were eager to prognosticate. But Page insisted.
Earlier in the day, I had pondered the conventional-wisdom short-list of McCain's choices: Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Bush budget director Rob Portman, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. At least three of these contenders should be nowhere near McCain's calculations:
* Ridge: He favors abortion rights. That could help McCain with independent voters, when the inevitable McCain-wants-to-criminalize-abortion ads start flooding the airwaves in the fall. But does McCain want to be at war with the base of his party from now until election day? (One problem for McCain is that he cannot win without the party's base, and he may not be able to win by catering to it. What a paradox!)
* Portman: As the economy slides further into a ravine--and Bush's approval ratings remain in the gutter--does McCain want by his side the man who was in charge of Bush's budget? Portman does hail from the must-win state of Ohio, and he's considered an affable and effective campaigner. But McCain would find it harder to distance himself from Bush's economic policies with one of Bush's key economic appointees on the ticket.
* Jindal: As I noted earlier, if McCain opts for this 37-year-old overachiever, he will make exorcism a campaign issue, for Jindal will have to explain his 1994 account of an exorcism in which he participated--and prove his account was true. Also, Jindal's record in Louisiana has been not-so-stellar recently. Senator, once more, can you explain whether you believe that Satanic demons can take possession of an individual and that people like your running-mate can perform amateur exorcisms to drive these spirits away?
So that leaves Pawlenty and Romney. Pawlenty comes from a swing state, but he has no standing on the national stage. "Pawlenty of nothing," one conservative pundit quipped to me recently. As for Romney, he does okay (not great) with the GOP base (the part of which that does not consider Mormonism to be an anti-Christian cult), and he can talk about his business experience at a time when the economy is ailing. One key question is, is McCain still pissed off at Romney over his attacks on McCain during the primary campaign? McCain does have anger issues. (See here for a recent example.)
When pressed for an answer by Page, I went with Romney, noting I was probably wrong. Blankley chose Ridge. And Cummings picked Portman, adding that voters would not necessarily identify him with Bush. But we all stipulated that we had no clue. As for me, I doubt that the veep pick will make much of a difference for McCain's campaign. He (and Barack Obama, too) ought to keep in mind the cardinal rule: first, do no harm. Yet that short-list is full of potential dangers.
Elections, the consultants tell us, are about the future, not the past. And all politics is not only local but aspiration-driven. It's about not only what's gone wrong or what people fear but what voters want and, yes, hope, for. And Barack Obama is quite good at speaking about aspirations, whether at home or abroad.
From his much-anticipated speech in Berlin on Thursday:
People of Berlin people of the world this is our moment. This is our time. I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.
But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived at great cost and great sacrifice to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world. Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. What has always united us what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America's shores is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.
These are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. These aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart. It is because of these aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of these aspirations that all free people everywhere became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation our generation must make our mark on the world.
The speech was predictably grand; the photo op, superb, with Obama bathed in golden light. There's not much policy in these eloquent words--though elsewhere in the speech he did speak about the pressing need to globally confront climate change, poverty, and AIDS. But in politics--and in government--inspiration does matter. And being a great communicator of lofty ideals is not a bad credential for a candidate--or a president.