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 past weekend I received on my home line a call from John Dennis, the Republican long-shot candidate challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was a recorded message in which he blamed her for "no jobs" and out-of-control debt. He warned that she "wants to raise your taxes." But after the rant, a live voice came on, a woman named Susan, who asked if I would now participate in a survey. There was but one question: "Would America be better off without Nancy Pelosi?"
Sure, I said to Susan. But first I had a question for her: who did she work for? Her first response: John Dennis for Congress. Nah, I said. You're not in his campaign office, you're obviously working for a firm he's hired. Which one? Infocision Management Corporation, she said. (The firms's website boasts it is "THE highest quality call center company in the world.") And what list are you using? I asked Susan. A series of lists, she said. Which one had my name and number, I enquired politely. "We have your name because you've supported conservative causes and campaigns," she said.
"I don't think so," I replied. Without missing a beat, she said, "You may have done more than you realize."
Perhaps. But probably not.
In any event, this call from the Dennis campaign caused me to wonder if he's wasting lots of money using lousy lists with names of unlikely potential donors across the country.
After courteously answering my questions, Susan asked if we could return to the survey question. Sure, I said. She put it to me again, and I said that I doubted America would be better off without Pelosi. In a flash, she thanked me and hung up.
The office might be that of a regional sales director for a midsize company—a modest space, adorned by little more than family photos, a "Fightin' Phillies" banner, and a shelf of binders bearing labels like "Northeast" and "Midwest." Four blocks from the Capitol, it has a view not of Washington's grand buildings, but of an elevated highway. Yet this room is the command center for a titanic fight that could determine the future of the nation. It's the office of Jon Vogel, the man tasked with one of the toughest jobs in politics: stopping what appears to be a tidal wave heading toward Congress.
Vogel, 35, is the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a.k.a. "D-Trip" (even "D-Triple C" is now passé), the party unit in charge of raising money and providing other support for House races. It's a tall order: Since Abraham Lincoln, the party of a first-term president has always lost House seats in the midterm election, with two exceptions—the year after FDR was inaugurated during the Great Depression, and the year after 9/11. If the pattern holds true this year, Republicans might ride popular discontent, Tea Party anger, and sky-high unemployment to regain control of the House. Vogel's job is to stop that from happening.
At some point during the awful days of Hurricane Katrina, I received an email from my friend Harry Shearer, the actor, satirist, and musician. The national media are getting the story wrong, he angrily declared: What's happened in New Orleans is not a natural disaster; it's a catastrophic failure of government. This was a case of profound negligence—poorly designed and shoddily built levees had collapsed. He was anxious to spread the word: Don't blame the category-five storm. Blame those who constructed the inadequate levees.
Now, on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, Shearer is releasing a feature-length documentary he's produced, written, and directed—called The Big Uneasy—in which he nails the case: The flooding of New Orleans was due not to Mother Nature but to the US Army Corps of Engineers. For some, Shearer may seem an unlikely investigative documentarian. He's well-known for starring in movies (he was bass player Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap) and for voicing several characters in The Simpsons, most notably the deliciously nefarious Mr. Burns. For nearly three decades, he has hosted Le Show, a syndicated weekly radio show featuring a satirical hodgepodge tied to the news. He was a Saturday Night Live cast member; he's written a novel; he's developed video installations for museums and galleries. But he's also practiced journalism. Shearer covered the O.J. Simpson trial for Slate. He has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, spending a stretch as its top media critic. I first met Shearer at the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego, when we both were trying to sneak into a private fundraising reception chock-full of lobbyists. (We failed.)
Shearer is a part-time New Orleanian. "My wife and I got a place here in the late '90s," he says. "This is an incredibly seductive city, it speaks to you in a language all its own, and if you speak that language—even though you may never have heard it before—it's irresistible. It functioned as a great antidote to Hollywood." And he did not want to see anyone get off the hook for failing his adopted city.
The Big Uneasy, which will be screened on August 30 in theaters across the nation (check here for a cinema near you), is an indictment of the Army Corps. Shearer tracks independent investigators working for the state of Louisiana who moved quickly after the hurricane to determine what had caused the disastrous flooding that destroyed much of the Crescent City and that claimed the lives of hundreds. Weaving together poignant interviews with these scientific gumshoes, dramatic computer imagery depicting what went wrong with the levees, and gripping footage of the flooding, Shearer tells the story of the most calamitous engineering screw-up in US history.
Today's top headline at Politico: "Democrats privately fear House prospects worsening." An excerpt:
Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.
In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.
They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover — or that anything resembling the White House’s promise of a “recovery summer” is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe — such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 — are in real trouble.
In two close races, endangered Democrats are even running ads touting how they oppose their leadership.
Sounds damn grim for the Ds. But--wait!--here's the headline from the National Journal's "Hotline": "Why Democrats Will Keep the House." An excerpt:
House Republicans are measuring the drapes in preparation for big gains in the lower chamber, convinced that Minority Leader John Boehner is going to become the next Speaker of the House. On a macro level, that wouldn't be a bad guess -- Democrats are saddled with bad polls and unpopular leaders, and the national mood wants a change from the status quo.
But the Democratic apocalypse isn't guaranteed just yet. In fact, senior Democratic strategists say they're not only likely to keep the House, but they believe the GOP won't come close to gaining the 39 seats they need to take over.
That's not to say Republicans have no chance of taking back the House. Indeed, for every argument Democrats make about their strengths, Republicans have a counterargument. But Democrats have a compelling case.
The piece goes on to detail "four reasons Democrats shouldn't be counted out of the majority, and republicans shouldn't start counting their chickens, quite yet."
What does this show you? That sometimes it's hard in Washington to concoct conventional wisdom.
President Barack Obama has declared that a group of moderate Muslims have the right to build a community center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site once occupied by the World Trade Center towers. Yet representatives of a wholly US government-funded outfit have joined the vociferous opposition to the Park51 or Cordoba House project that critics have dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque." A leader of this group—which receives $4.3 million a year from the government—has even proclaimed that the community center could be a front for Islamic terrorism. That's not all: the same agency, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF), has been the subject of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint for allegedly discriminating against Muslim employees.
The commission was created by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world and scold countries that aren't meeting religious freedom obligations outlined by international human rights treaties. Its sole source of funding is the US government; it is empowered to make recommendations to the president about policy decisions related to issues of religious freedom. Recently, the commission has decried Vietnam for its systemic violation of religious freedom and slammed China for its repression of Uighur Muslims. But leading conservative members of the commission have supported the opposition to the Cordoba House, essentially joining those who want to deny New York Muslims the freedom to build their religious and cultural center at this particular site.
In a recent piece for National Review Online, Nina Shea, one of USCIRF's nine commissioners (who are selected by the president and congressional leaders), wrote that instead of "a cultural center for all New Yorkers," the "mosque" project could be "a potential tool for Islamists"—suggesting it would be a hotbed of jihadism that, among other things, spreads the literature and ideas of Islamic extremism. She compared the leaders of the Cordoba House project to convicted terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman (the "blind Sheikh") and accused Fort Hood and Christmas Day bombing coordinator Anwar al-Awlaki. (Shea's piece, as of Monday, was no longer showing up on the NRO site.)
Shea, long an influential figure in neoconservative circles last appointed to the commission by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), is not the only commissioner of this religious freedom organization trying to block the Cordoba House project. Leonard Leo, the chairman of the commission and a top official in the conservative Federalist Society, is director of Liberty Central, a new tea party-related rightwing group organized by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Liberty Central has organized a petition campaign against the Cordoba House project. Moreover, Virginia Thomas is one of several conservative leaders participating in a 9/11 rally against the Cordoba House project, organized in part by anti-Islam activist/blogger Pam Geller, who runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America and who kick-started the "mosque" controversy. (Geller recently said that Obama has "sided with Islamic jihadists.") To break this down: the chairman of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (Leonard Leo) is working closely with a conservative activist (Virginia Thomas) who is a featured speaker at an event being mounted by an outright anti-Islam group. [Regarding Thomas' participation in this rally, see the update below.]
And as TPM reported, Richard Land, another USCIRF commissioner and the influential president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has opposed the project, comparing it to a (non-existent) Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor and a (never-built) convent near Auschwitz. (Land says that the USCIRF itself is prohibited from intervening in domestic matters, but the commission has officially criticized a Saudi-run high school in Alexandria, Virginia.)
The USCIRF also happens to have connections to former UN ambassador John Bolton, one of the fiercest critics of the Cordoba House project. Bolton served as a USCIRF commissioner in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, and Jackie Wolcott, the commission's current executive director, worked under Bolton when Bolton was in charge of nuclear nonproliferation efforts within the Bush State Department. (Bolton wrote the forward to Geller's anti-Islam book and is another scheduled speaker at her September 11 rally against the project.)
The USCIRF may have internal problems with Muslims, too. In February, the Washington Postbroke the news of religious infighting at USCIRF. According to the Post, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, a former policy analyst at the commission, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that her contract was cancelled because she was a Muslim and affiliated with the Muslim Public Affairs Counsel, an advocacy group. Another researcher at the commission, Bridget Kustin, quit in protest after Ghori-Ahmad's contract was not renewed. In her resignation letter, Kustin wrote that she did not want to "remain part of an organization that would be willing to engage in such discrimination."
In a message on the commission's website, Leonard Leo notes that the USCIRF "seeks to advance the visibility of and serious thinking about" how to best address the challenge of religious "intolerance" throughout the world. Yet Leo and the conservatives of the taxpayer-financed commission are siding with the foes of the Cordoba House and bolstering the misleading claims about the "mosque." They have not been advocating tolerance at home.
UPDATE I, 12:00 p.m. Monday: We spoke to Imam Talal Y. Eid, a Muslim USCIRF commissioner. He says the anti-Cordoba House commissioners were speaking in their personal capacities, he disagrees with them (although he respects their opinions), and he may raise the issue with them when he sees them. (He was out of the country last week.)
UPDATE II, 8:00 p.m., Monday: A publicist for Liberty Central emailed us a statement from Sarah Field, the conservative group's chief operating officer: "Mrs. Thomas was not invited, and has not agreed to attend and speak at the 9/11 Rally at Ground Zero on September 11th, 2010 in lower Manhattan, New York City. Any report of her attending is an error. However, Liberty Central does support leveraging citizens’ voices in opposition to this mosque." Geller's Stop Islamization of America did issue a press release on August 14 that noted, "The confirmed list of speakers includes 9/11 family members; former U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; the Dutch Parliamentarian and freedom fighter Geert Wilders; Gary Berntsen, a candidate for the US Senate from New York; Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has filed suit to stop the Ground Zero mega-mosque; Ginny Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife; Michael Grimm, a candidate for Congress from New York's 13th district and a 9/11 first responder; and journalist Andrew Breitbart." We have asked Geller to explain how Thomas came to be promoted as a confirmed speaker, if (as Field says) she was not even invited to participate.