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.
The story revealing that FreedomWorks produced a video with an obscene scene featuring a giant panda, Hillary Clinton, and oral sex created quite a stir and, according to former officials of the influential tea party group, had staffers at the conservative advocacy group and super-PAC "freaking out," as one put it. That was to be expected, especially since FreedomWorks is the target of an internal investigation mounted by its board of trustees after board members received "allegations of wrongdoing by the organization or its employees," according to a letter the board sent in December to Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. That probe is being conducted by two lawyers: Alfred Regnery, long a prominent figure in the conservative movement, and David Martin.
Readers of Thursday's article may have noticed that Kibbe, Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of the group (who appeared in the obscene video), and Jackie Bodnar, the director of communications for FreedomWorks, did not respond to repeated requests from Mother Jones for comments (and an explanation) regarding the bizarre video. James Burnley IV, one of the two trustees who initiated the internal inquiry, did offer a comment that suggested he might not have known of the video and that the investigation might have not yet learned of it. (Former FreedomWorks officials note that the production of the video could have entailed sexual harassment, given that two female interns were asked to play the roles of the giant panda and Hillary Clinton and act out a pretend sex scene.)
After the story was posted, the FreedomWorks gang was still officially keeping mum about the giant-panda-Hillary-Clinton-sex video. I did send Burnley this query, which referred to C. Boyden Gray, another board of trustees member:
Now that the allegations regarding the video are public, do you and C. Boyden Gray intend to ask Alfred Regnery and David Martin to investigate them?
So far, no response from Burnley. Yet two former FreedomWorks officials say that they believe Regnery and Martin will have no choice but to add the panda-Clinton-sex video to their to-do list.
An internal investigation of FreedomWorks—the prominent conservative advocacy group and super-PAC—has focused on president Matt Kibbe's management of the organization, his use of its resources, and a controversial book deal he signed, according to former FreedomWorks officials who have met with the private lawyers conducting the probe. One potential topic for the inquiry is a promotional video produced last year under the supervision of Adam Brandon, executive vice president of the group and a Kibbe loyalist. The video included a scene in which a female intern wearing a panda suit simulates performing oral sex on Hillary Clinton. [Author's note: The previous sentence contains no typos.]
In December, after months of bitter in-fighting, two members of FreedomWorks' board of trustees—C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush, and James Burnley IV, a secretary of transportation during the Reagan years—notified Kibbe that they had received "allegations of wrongdoing by the organization or its employees" and had hired two lawyers, Alfred Regnery and David Martin, to investigate. Soon after, Regnery and Martin began interviewing past and present FreedomWorks employees and officials. This list included Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who in November resigned as chairman of the group (and pocketed an $8 million payout), citing concerns about the management of the organization. The investigating lawyers, Armey says, "picked my brain. I told them a forensic audit would be imperative because so much is hidden there."
In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Barack Obama sent a clear signal: He will vigorously pursue an unambiguous progressive agenda in his final years as president. Universal preschool, boosting the minimum wage, passing gun-safety legislation—Obama delivered a left-of-center demand list for Congress and his administration. He talked far more about jobs than taming the debt. He certainly cited his own efforts to reduce the deficits and hinted at another version of the grand bargain—pairing cuts in entitlements with a boost in tax revenues—the holy grail of the inside-the-Beltway set. But he advocated "modest" Medicare reforms, citing limits on payments, not benefits, and decried those calling for deep cuts in this program and Social Security. And he declared he would not yield to those seeking such cuts to stave off the soon-to-hit sequestration.
"We can't just cut our way to prosperity," Obama insisted, once again drawing the line between his progressive view of government as a source of investment in jobs-creating innovation and infrastructure and social development and the tea party-ized GOP's belief that the only solution to the nation's economic woes is slashing government and the tax bills of the well-to-do. This was the face-off he established after the shellacking of 2010 to set up the campaign of 2012. And that certainly worked out as he intended. Now re-elected by a healthy margin, Obama is willing to defy the conventionalists of Washington who fixate on debt and, instead, speak of other priorities: educating children, enhancing the purchasing power of low-income Americans, and protecting citizens from gun violence. This is a president setting his own course.
The speech was more than a Clintonesque recital of favorite policy initiatives. It was a thematic presentation of a to-do list. He nodded toward the deficit hawks, defied the Republican tea partiers, and forged ahead with the vision of America that he repeatedly explained during last year's campaign. Having won a three-quarters-loaf victory in the fight over the Bush tax cuts weeks ago, Obama pivoted from using that tussle over tax rates for the rich to cold-cock GOPers to confronting them over private interest tax loopholes. You want to cut programs for middle- and low-income Americans to deal with the nation's debt? he said. Well, that's not going to happen, especially if you won't support ending tax breaks for the well-heeled: "After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?" He essentially dared House GOPers to play chicken with him again over government spending and the debt ceiling:
So let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.
Obama has said this before. When he proclaimed, "let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," he was not breaking new ground in his ongoing stand-off with the Rs.
What made this speech different was his forceful advocacy of fundamental progressive proposals. He called for an infrastructure-boosting bridge-building program and the launching of high-tech manufacturing hubs. He beefed up his demand for climate change action—and cornered Senator John McCain by urging "Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago." He added, "if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
Noting that fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program, Obama proposed working with states "to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." That is, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD. The president renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform and insisted that Congress pass legislation that addresses the gap in pay between women and men. And Obama said it was time to boost the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. (This, though, does represent a scaling-back of ambitions: In 2008, he called for it to be raised to $9.50 an hour by 2011.) He announced the formation of a commission to address the rampant problems in the nation's voting system—and hailed a 102-year-old North Miami woman named Desilene Victor, who endured hours of waiting to vote in the last election.
On the foreign policy front, Obama also took a liberal line. He announced that he would be pulling 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan this year and that the war there would indeed be over by the end of next year. (Or at least the current version of the war.) And he addressed the criticisms of his administration's drone program with a direct promise:
[W]e must enlist our values in the [counterterrorism] fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.
The emotional highlight of the speech came when the president turned to an issue American politicians have long ducked: gun violence. Obama ended the speech with a demand that the Congress take action on proposals he has put forward:
It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around commonsense reform—like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.
No recent president has focused on gun violence with such passion in a state of the union speech. Obama cited the tragic case of Hadiya Pendleton:
She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Her parents were in the House chambers. "They deserve a vote," he said. And he went on: "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence—they deserve a simple vote."
It was a powerful moment in a speech that offered a muscular progressivism, one centered firmly on values.
A speech, of course, won't win the tough political and policy fights that Obama will confront in the coming months and years. But with this address, he didn't hold back. And if he only succeeds in placing this nation on the road to universal preschool, that in itself would be a historic accomplishment of fundamental consequence. With this address—which seemed to bore House Speaker John Boehner—the president was not trying to win over recalcitrant Republicans and nudge them toward the compromises they have by and large eschewed. He was trying to lead.
On Thursday morning, Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary, appears on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing before the Senate armed services committee. Though neo-cons and some Rs have moaned about Hagel and tried to mount a campaign against him—he's just not warmongerish enough for them—it remains to be seen whether the Senate Republicans will truly go nuclear against a former colleague who also is a Vietnam veteran. The optics, as they say in Washington, would not be good for the GOP, if it tried to destroy this nomination, given its quasi-bipartisan nature and Hagel's past military service. It's hard to envision the Republicans scoring political points by crucifying Hagel. But with the ever-frustrated and often-crotchety John McCain an influential player on the GOP side, you never know what might happen.
Meanwhile, with Hagel's past and present policy views being probed, it's a good time to repost an item I put up when Hagel was first appointed that examines what he did—and didn't do—when President George W. Bush was trying to march the country to war in Iraq. Here it is:
In October 2002, when Congress was fiercely debating a measure that would allow President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, Hagel noted several reasons why this was a bad idea and presciently predicted all that could go wrong. Yet he still voted for the measure, mostly out of party loyalty (which GOPers now accuse him of no longer possessing). When Hagel was contemplating a presidential run in 2008, I examined his 2002 stance in a TomPaine.com column. I've pasted it below.
Of all the senators eyeing the White House in 2008, this Nebraskan [Hagel] was the only one to express deep reservations about the resolution—while still voting for it. "America—including the Congress—and the world, must speak with one voice about Iraqi disarmament, as it must continue to do so in the war on terrorism," Hagel said in explaining his vote. But he was prescient: "If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility." He added, "Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq's reconstruction. No small task."
Hagel was disappointed in the discourse within the Senate: "We should spend more time debating the cost and extent of this commitment, the risks we may face in military engagement with Iraq, the implications of the precedent of United States military action for regime change and the likely character and challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq. We have heard precious little from the President, his team, as well as from this Congress, with a few notable exceptions, about these most difficult and critical questions." And he cautioned humility: "I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world." Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn't have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.
Hagel took a thoughtful approach to the question of the invasion. His worries were dead-on. Yet he had the wiggle room to vote for the measure because there remained a possibility—albeit slight—that Bush would not use this authority and the conflict with Saddam Hussein would be resolved without US military intervention. In considering the invasion and its implications, Hagel had the right take; he just couldn't bring himself to vote accordingly.
Thursday was a big day for Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. The son of a foreign-service officer, he was appearing before the Senate foreign relations committee (which he used to chair) as President Barack Obama's pick to be secretary of state. Though Kerry failed in 2004 to win the nation's highest job, becoming the country's top diplomat is a tremendous accomplishment and marvelous capstone for his decades-long public career, which began when he returned from service in Vietnam a war hero and led the movement against that war.
Over the years, it has been easy for some to poke fun at Kerry for his sometimes stodgy senatorial ways and for his occasional lapses, such as his 2002 vote authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. But those who weren't around Washington in the 1980s or who have short memories might not realize that Kerry has been one of the more courageous members of the Senate. Back in 2004, when Kerry was running for president and some progressives were grumbling about him, I wrote an article for The Nation reminding folks of the gutsy actions Kerry had taken in the dark days of the Reagan-Bush era, when Republicans in the White House were cozying up to dictators, the CIA was using assets tied to drug smuggling to prosecute its secret wars, and Democrats were nervous about probing international banks with shady ties (that in several instances implicated Democrats). As Kerry reaches the pinnacle of the foreign-policy world, it's an appropriate time to recall his years of noncombat bravery. Here's the bulk of that article: