Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Burris deserves better from Senate Democrats

By DeWayne Wickham

In saying they won't let Roland Burris fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, Democrats controlling the Senate said Burris would be "plagued by questions of impropriety" if they let his appointment stand.

That reeks more of political bluster than concern about good governance.

Burris is the former Illinois state attorney general named by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to replace Obama, who gave up his seat after winning the presidential election. Burris' selection comes three weeks after a federal prosecutor charged Blagojevich with trying to sell the Senate seat for
personal gain.

Blagojevich claims he's committed no crime, even as a committee of the Illinois legislature holds impeachment hearings and federal prosecutors press ahead with their case. There were mounting calls for Blagojevich not to fill the vacant Senate seat with this legal cloud hanging over his head.

But despite the seriousness of the charges against him, Blagojevich retains the constitutional authority to fill the Senate seat - and Senate Democrats should not reject Burris' appointment out of hand.

"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint a good and honest man," Blagojevich said in announcing his selection. "This is about Roland Burris as a U.S. senator, not about the governor who made the appointment."

But as news of Burris' selection leaked, Senate Democrats said they would stop him from taking office. This "is not about Mr. Burris, it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat," Democrats said in a statement.

"Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois" and will not be allowed to take a seat in Congress, the Democrats went on to say.

Senate Democrats were aided and abetted in this bad judgment call by President-elect Obama. While calling Burris "a good man and a fine public servant," Obama said he agreed with the Senate's opposition to his appointment because Blagojevich "is accused of selling this very Senate seat."

To accept this tortured reasoning is to treat a mere accusation as proof of criminal behavior. The charges against Blagojevich are serious; but Obama and the Senate's Democratic majority need to be reminded they are just that - charges.

I'm not suggesting Senate Democrats should be unmindful of the federal prosecutor's claim that Blagojevich is corrupt. But since the Illinois governor has neither been convicted of a crime nor impeached by state lawmakers, his choice to fill Obama's Senate seat should not be rejected without good cause.

Under the Constitution, the Senate has the authority to "be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members." So instead of announcing a knee-jerk rejection of Burris - even as they say they "respect his years of public service" - Senate Democrats should take a more deliberative approach to his appointment.

They should hold a hearing to determine if Burris bought his way into the Senate - something no one has accused him of doing. If he didn't, they should let him take a seat among them.

Senate Democrats should not lump Burris and Blagojevich together. It makes no sense to say a man they know to be upstanding can't be allowed to fill the Senate vacancy because the governor who appointed him is accused of wrongdoing.

What the Senate doesn't need is a posse of Democrats gunning for an accused governor and making collateral damage of a man widely considered a class act.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As Castro's Cuba turns 50, it's time to end the fight

By DeWayne Wickham

Like a couple of punch drunk boxers who have stayed in the ring long after the blows they rain on each can produce a decisive victory, Cuba and the United States are still flailing at each other half a century after Fidel Castro’s revolution succeeded.

In the world of geopolitics, this ought to be the definition of insanity. Cuba’s brand of communism turns 50 on New Year’s Day. That it has survived so long is a testament to the resiliency of this one-party state, which — despite the claims of its critics — has widespread support among the Cuban people.

But longevity alone is no predictor of survival. For the past 50 years, Cuba has been a nation under siege, rallying people to its defense with calls to patriotism and the fear that another U.S. occupation force will descend upon the island nation that sits just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Between 1898 and 1933, the United States sent military forces into Cuba four times. After the Castro regime came to power in 1959, American government operatives helped arm and train an invasion force of Cuban exiles that was defeated in the 1961 Bays of Pigs invasion.

“I have spent all of my adult life in the trenches,” Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, once told me. He was talking about the time he’s spent defending Cuba’s communist regime from U.S. efforts to topple it.

Alarcon won’t escape that trench any time soon — nor is it likely there will be an appreciable change in U.S.-Cuban relations in the next 50 years — if the two countries continue their fistfight. It’s time for Cuba and the U.S. to replace their pugilism with diplomacy — time for both to make some meaningful concessions to bring this fight to an end.

And just what concessions do I have in mind? Well, to begin with, the incoming Obama administration should shut down Radio and TV Marti, the federally funded Spanish-language stations that attempt to penetrate Cuba’s airwaves with “news” shows largely controlled by Cuban exiles in south Florida. In return, Cuba should open its broadcast airwaves to legitimate news programs that come from beyond its borders so that its people — like those in many other countries — can get a broader perspective of the world.

The Castro government should free all of its so-called “political prisoners,” in return for which the Obama government should stop giving aid and comfort to Cuba’s political dissidents.

The Obama administration should return the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to Cuba. Control of that land was coerced from Cuba more than a century ago as a condition for ending the first U.S. military occupation of that island. In return for this giveback, Cuba should agree to allow its citizens to freely travel abroad and emigrate anywhere they want.

Cuba should admit that in shooting down two unarmed planes in 1996 it overreacted to the provocations of the south Florida exile group that operated those flights. The United States should apologize for not putting Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles on trial for their alleged roles in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that took 76 lives.

Congress should end the economic embargo of Cuba — and the Castro government should open Cuba’s political process to all comers.

Of course all of these actions will draw a blood curdling cry from those who still hope for a knockout punch in the U.S.-Cuba political fistfight. But the more rational among us know the time has come to get these old combatants to take off their boxing gloves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bush should pardon shoe thrower

By DeWayne Wickham

Two days before Christmas, President Bush issued 19 pardons and one commutation. But nowhere on that list was the name of Muntazer al-Zaidi.

Al-Zaidi is the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the president during his surprise visit to Iraq earlier this month. Of course, Bush's power to forgive the bad acts of people doesn't extend to crimes committed by foreigners in their native land.

But al-Zaidi is a special case, and there is still time for Bush to launch a pre-emptive strike against his prosecution. Bush should ask the leaders of the government his administration played a big role in creating to pardon the shoe thrower.

As it stands now, al-Zaidi's trial is scheduled to begin on New Year's Eve. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for five to 15 years.

Al-Zaidi was attending an impromptu press conference held by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when he ripped off his shoes and tossed them at the American president.

What he did was a foolish expression of the disdain many Iraqis feel for Bush. In the Arab world, showing someone the soles of your shoe is a sign of contempt. Bush nimbly ducked both shoes. After security officers hustled al-Zaidi from the room, Bush joked about the incident, then linked it to his efforts to turn Iraq into a democratic state.

"I don't know what the guy's cause is," Bush said. "But that's what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves."

Exactly. And it is a free society that Bush wants as his legacy in Iraq. Al-Zaidi wasn't trying to harm Bush physically, he wanted to insult him. What he did was - in the context of his culture - an act of political protest.

But the Iraqi journalist is charged with "aggression against a foreign head of state" and could end up spending a lot of time behind bars. And that could undermine Iraq's fragile democracy.

With provincial elections set for the end of January, opponents of al-Maliki are trying to paint the Iraqi prime minister as an American puppet and al-Zaidi as an Iraqi hero who stood up to the leader of the country that invaded Iraq.

Americans can argue the merits of this argument (again, an expression of democracy), but in Iraq and much of the Middle East the shoe-throwing is seen as a David-and-Goliath incident.

If al-Maliki's government convicts al-Zaidi for an offense not considered a criminal act in that region of the world, it will hand the opponents of democracy in Iraq a highly symbolic victory at a crucial time.

Bush can take al-Maliki off of the hook by asking him to pardon al-Zaidi.

"There is hope in the eyes of Iraqis' young," Bush said shortly before al-Zaidi tossed his shoes. "This is a future of what we've been fighting for - a strong and capable, democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace in the heart of the Middle East."

Maybe so. But the prosecution of al-Zaidi could become the cause célèbre that unravels all of what Bush thinks he has accomplished in Iraq.

Al-Zaidi is not Richard Reid, the Briton who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airline using a shoe packed with explosives. He rightfully got a life sentence from an American court for that act of madness.

For throwing his shoes at Bush, al-Zaidi should be judged only for the political statement he was trying to make in the newly democratic Iraq.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rick Warren is Obama's Booker T.

By DeWayne Wickham

If you’re looking for an explanation of Barack Obama’s decision to invite conservative evangelical preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration that goes beyond the desire for a kumbaya moment, I’ve got one.

Obama wants to make Warren his Booker T. Washington.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Washington was one of this nation’s most influential black leaders. His willingness to try to find common ground with whites who viewed – and treated – blacks as an inferior race made Washington someone presidents reached out to.

Theodore Roosevelt, especially, turned to Washington for advice on “the Negro problem.” Taking counsel from “the great accommodationist,” as Washington was called, was an act of steam control by the Republican president at a time when the racial divide was undeniably this nation’s most explosive problem.

“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” Washington said in an 1895 speech that established him as a black leader who was willing to temper the demands of blacks for racial equality.

Last week, Warren – who, like most evangelical leaders, disagrees sharply with Obama on social issues like abortion and gay rights – sounded a similar note when he sought to assuage the concerns of those who question why he was asked to give the invocation.

“You don’t have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand,” he said in a speech to a group of Muslims in California.

With the election of the nation’s first black president America’s continuing racial problems will – for a time, at least – be pushed onto the back burner. A greater threat to the Obama administration will be the cultural warfare that flared up during the election that hoisted Obama into the White House. Voters in three states, Arizona, Florida and California passed constitutional amendments that banned gay marriage. And in Arkansas, voters passed a ballot measure that makes it illegal for gay couples to adopt children or serve as foster parents.

Warren was actively campaigned for passage of Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriages. “We support (it), and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Prop 8,” he said in an October email that was sent to members of his Saddleback Church in southern California.

Three months earlier, Obama announced his opposition to the California amendment, saying that he supports civil unions for gays and lesbians – though not marriage. He called the California measure “divisive and discriminatory.”

Theodore Roosevelt believed blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and did little to protect their civil rights during his time in the White House. Even so, Washington became one of his advisers on matters of race – and a conduit for the few patronage appointments that he doled out to blacks.

In accepting Obama’s invitation to give the invocation at next month’s inaugural, Warren gives some pressure relief to Obama, who was backed by just 24 percent of white evangelical voters. Three-fourths of these Christian conservatives voted for John McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential election.

Republicans won’t be able to make a serious challenge to Obama’s reelection in 2012 without the strong backing of the party’s Christian conservative base. Obama’s outreach to Warren – and Warren’s acceptance of that embrace – threatens to take some of the steam out of and GOP efforts to make Obama the chief target of their cultural battles.

Just as Roosevelt used Washington to keep blacks from deserting the Republican Party, Barack Obama’s effort to befriend Rick Warren could prevent evangelicals from massing in opposition to his presidency.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's first foreign policy test

By DeWayne Wickham

The first foreign policy test for Barack Obama didn't come in the form of a 3 a.m. phone call about a looming threat from some distant enemy. It came Wednesday from a gathering of some of America's closest allies.

At a meeting of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries - including Mexico and Brazil - the assembled leaders called for an end to the 46-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba and creation of a regional alliance that doesn't include the United States or Canada.

The organization, which Mexican President Felipe Calderon said should be called the Union of Latin American and Caribbean States, would rival the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States for political supremacy in the hemisphere.

The proposed union is just the most recent manifestation of the United States' declining influence in its geopolitical backyard. The Russian and Chinese presidents recently visited the region. The Russian and Venezuelan navies are holding joint war games off the coast of that South American country, and the Iranian president is expected to make a state visit to the region soon.

And the Rio Group - a collection 22 Caribbean and South American states - announced during the Brazilian summit that it has admitted Cuba to its ranks.

None of this bodes well for the nascent Obama administration.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and on remittances sent to people in the socialist state.

But that isn't much of a change in the nearly half-century-old embargo - nor is it an enlightened foreign policy.

But there is still time for Obama to signal to his hemispheric neighbors that "change" was more than a campaign slogan when it comes to how this nation treats countries in the Americas.

"We have to wait for the new U.S. president to take office and see what his proposals are for Latin America and Cuba," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in response to calls for countries at the summit to immediately recall their ambassadors from the United States to protest the Cuba embargo.

It's unlikely that such a drastic step will occur even after Obama takes office and makes only minor changes to the embargo. But the summit discussion suggests he will have to do more than tweak restrictions on travel and remittances to forge a Cuba policy that satisfies these countries, which see the embargo as an arrogant act of American jingoism.

And of course that's exactly what it is.

The embargo has succeeded only in limiting the Cuban people's access to badly needed food and medicine. Instead of pledging to keep it in place until Cuba meets certain conditions, Obama should end it.

Instead of trying to topple the Cuban government - the real goal of the embargo - Obama should push the doors to Cuba wide open. He should let American companies do business in Cuba and free all Americans, not just Cuban Americans, to freely travel to the island nation.

That would pressure the Cuban government to relax its restrictions on individual rights, which it claims were enacted in response to the external threat posed by the United States. It also would strip Cuba of any plausible argument that its domestic problems are American-made.

If Obama produces a meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba policy, he'll out-maneuver critics of the United States’ Cuba policy and thwart their efforts to undermine this country's leadership.

If he just retools a bad Cuba policy, Obama will diminish the standing and influence of the United States in its own backyard.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush may save GOP from itself

By DeWayne Wickham

George W. Bush may have saved the Republican Party from itself – and pumped a bit of helium into his deflated approval rating.

If, as expected, the Treasury Department gives General Motors and Chrysler the stop-gap loans they need to prevent their collapse – and keep a ripple effect from laying waste to businesses far beyond the auto industry – Bush could rescue the GOP from self destruction. Last week, Senate Republicans scuttled a House-passed bill that would have given the two American automotive companies about $11 billion in emergency funding.

The federal loan will allow General Motors and Chrysler to avoid bankruptcy and continue operating until Congress and the incoming Obama administration can broker a longer term deal to keep this nation’s homegrown automobile industry from going the way of the dodo bird.

While Senate Republicans publicly bandied about laissez faire arguments as the reason for their opposition to this federal bailout, MSNBC uncovered a GOP document last week that suggested another motive. “Republican should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it,” read the unsigned “Action Alert” memo that was sent to GOP senators before the vote.

In other words, Republicans wanted to strike a blow against the United Auto Workers Union, which worked mightily to elect Barack Obama and has given $10 million to other Democratic candidates over the past decade. Some of that money went to opponents of some of the Republican senators that now oppose the bailout, the Detroit Free Press reported.

If you think what the GOP did is simply good political payback, consider this: Since 1990, America’s automobile industry – manufacturers, dealers and suppliers – has given Republican candidates $100 million. During the same period, Democrats got just $34 million from these sources, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.

So why did Republicans pick this fight? Because they are badly in need of a short-term victory; even one that could do them long-term harm.

When all the victors in November’s election are sworn in, Democrats will control the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of the nation’s governorships. And as America hurtles toward the time (projected to arrive around 2050) when minorities will make up a majority of the population, the Republican Party is increasingly becoming a political organization that appeals to whites only.

Obama was elected president on the strength of a coalition that contained 95 percent of black voters, 66 percent of Hispanics voters and 43 percent of whites.

His Republican opponent, John McCain, picked up just 4 percent of the black vote, 32 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of whites – a smaller share of each group than Bush won in 2004 – all a smaller share of these groups than what Bush got in 2004.

Now largely a regional political force (it holds sway in a shrinking number of states mostly in the South and Rocky Mountain West), the GOP’s opposition to the auto industry bailout is meant to kill off the UAW before it can make big inroads in organizing auto industry workers in Southern states where several foreign car manufacturers have assembly plants.

To his credit, Bush understands that the GOP’s opposition to the bailout might be good “get-even” politics for members of a critically-wounded, regionally-isolated political party, but it is bad governance by members of our national legislature.

In agreeing to use a portion of the $700 billion Congress gave the Treasury Department to aid the nation’s struggling financial institutions to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat, Bush rises above the pettiness of congressional Republicans to put this nation’s needs ahead of his party.

That’s an act of leadership that deserves to be acknowledged.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Honest Abe" Blagojevich

By DeWayne Wickham

Moments after accusing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of heading a "political corruption crime spree," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald delivered his punch line. Blagojevich's conduct "would make (Abraham) Lincoln roll over in his grave," the federal prosecutor said.

Connecting Blagojevich, who is arguably the state's most infamous politician, with Lincoln, Illinois' most revered, is good political theater. Lincoln is considered one of America's greatest presidents. He led this country during the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the freeing of slaves in the Confederate states. His reputation for honesty earned him the nickname, "Honest Abe."

Despite being elected as a reformer, Blagojevich's political resume is far from impressive. He's allegedly been the subject of a federal investigation for some time before he was taken into custody by FBI agents a few days ago. Fitzgerald said the arrest came after the governor conspired to award the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Under Illinois law, Blagojevich has the power to name someone to serve the remaing two years of Obama's term.

Fitzgerald also said Blagojevich tried to get the Chicago Tribune to fire several editorial writers who had angered him in return for state help in selling Wrigley Field, a baseball stadium the newspaper owns.

His Lincoln line was meant to draw a sharp distinction between Blagojevich and this nation's 16th president. But when it comes to political wheeling and dealing, Lincoln and Blagojevich have more in common than Fitzgerald, apparently, knows.

When Republicans gathered in Chicago in May 1860 to pick their presidential candidate, one of Lincoln's floor managers was Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill. Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot. But that victory came only after Medill promised a member of the Ohio delegation that Lincoln would give the state's favorite son candidate - Salmon P. Chase - "anything he wants" in return for Ohio's votes, journalism historian Harry J. Maihafer wrote in his book, "War of Words: Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War Press."

Another one of Lincoln's floor managers won over the backing of Pennsylvania delegates by promising that their candidate, Simon Cameron, would be named secretary of war if Lincoln won the presidency, Maihafer wrote.

Although Lincoln publicly maintained he would "make no contracts" to get the nomination, he honored the deals his floor managers made. Chase was appointed treasury secretary and Cameron was made secretary of war and later, ambassador to Russia.

The deals that gained Lincoln the Republican Party's presidential nomination fall short of the pay-to-play scheme that Blagojevich is alleged to have hatched. But, so far, Blagojevich's offense appears to be one of more talk than action. Lincoln, on the other hand, actually traded Cabinet positions for his own political gain.

"The tapes reveal that Governor Blagojevich wanted a number of things in exchange for making the appointment to the Senate seat - an appointment as secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship, an appointment to a private foundation, a higher paying job for his wife or campaign contributions," Fitzgerald said at his news conference.

Of course, Lincoln and Blagojevich are not kindred souls. The Illinois governor has shown no signs of greatness - not even as a grifter. While Lincoln, or at least his surrogates, went a lot further than Blagojevich in their political horse-trading without being subjected to arrest, they did it for political not personal gain.

Unfortunately for Blagojevich, while he lives in the "Land of Lincoln," he inhabits a far different political environment than the one that put Lincoln in this nation's highest office.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Michelle Obama gets my honor

By DeWayne Wickham

In a few days, Time magazine will name its "Person of the Year” – something it has been doing since 1927. Today, for the first time, I'm naming my choice for "American of the Year."

Time's award is given annually to the person who "has done the most to influence the events of the year." Mine goes to someone who, through deeds or inspiration, makes this nation a better place.

For a lot of people, President-elect Barack Obama would be a no-brainer for Time's honor.

During the 80 years Time has handed out its award, most of the recipients have been national leaders in the U.S. and abroad. He is, after all, a politician unlike any this nation has seen. When Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, he'll become America's first black president — a startling feat that comes four decades after the Kerner Commission warned that this nation was in danger of becoming "two societies, one black, and one white— separate and unequal."

Obama forged an interracial, multiethnic coalition that lifted him to a sweeping victory that was remarkable for many reasons — not the least of which is that he rewrote the campaign-financing record book by raising more than $745 million and dramatically altered the political campaign playbook with his ingenious use of the Internet.

Since his election, Obama has impressed Democrats, Republicans and independents with appointments he has made to key positions. His administration, it appears, will reflect the nation's diversity. And so it should come as no surprise if Time picks Obama as its "Person of the Year."

What might surprise you is that he is not my pick for "American of the Year." The first recipient of my annual acknowledgement of a person who has done something to improve the lives of people in this country, or given us the inspiration to make America a better place, is Michelle Obama.

In his winning presidential campaign, Obama helped a nation traumatized by the events of the past eight years heal its wounds. As his partner in marriage and his political life, Michelle Obama had an even bigger impact this year. She debunked the myth of the black woman. She is not a welfare mother, an angry woman, or an overachieving can't-find-a-good-man sista. Obama said his wife is his "rock" — the strong, steadying force in his life. But for many black women, Michelle Obama is their "everywoman."

She is the well-educated black wife and mother that Hollywood won't acknowledge and much of white America hasn't discovered. She's a black woman with wide hips and an occasional bad hair day who moved Erin Aubry Kaplan to say in a article: "Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque," the black essayist writes. "She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and ... a butt."

While such descriptions of Michelle Obama might make some people uncomfortable, it goes to the heart of what makes a lot of black women rave as much about her becoming first lady as they do her husband's becoming president. She looks more like them than Halle Berry or Beyonce does.

Obama's election ends the long monopoly white men have had on this country's highest office. But as the loyal partner in his life, Michelle Obama shows the world the strength that many black women possess. And, in doing so, she salves the centuries-old wounds of the millions of black women who have been victimized and marginalized by negative stereotypes.

For all these reasons, Michelle Obama is my "American of the Year."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Even in Venezuela, all politics is local

By DeWayne Wickham

Hugo Chavez believes he has a better idea. He wants to forge a socialist revolution out of Venezuela's struggling democracy.

The one-time army lieutenant colonel, who was jailed in 1992 for leading a failed coup against the country's elected president, wants to use Venezuela's oil wealth to undergird his "21st century socialist revolution."

But with just four years remaining in his second six-year term as Venezuela's president, time is running out on him.

So Chavez is making another attempt to change the country's constitution to allow him to seek re-election again — and again and again.

A similar referendum was defeated last year. But, buoyed by his party's win of 17 of 22 governorships in last month's election, Chavez says he'll try again in a February referendum to get voters to remove the term limits on his office.

As it is now, Venezuelan presidents can serve just two six-year terms. That, apparently, is not enough time for Chavez to transform Venezuela into the socialist state he envisions and make himself South America's most powerful leader.

But he's off to a good start.

A few days ago, Chavez and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on a warship off the Venezuelan coast, shortly before their navies conducted a joint exercise. In October, China launched into orbit Venezuela's first communications satellite. It's being monitored from a Venezuelan space center at an air force base south of Caracas.

As America's economic crisis causes financial markets across the globe to contract uncontrollably, Venezuela is pushing ahead with plans to create the "Bank of the South," Chavez's alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Given the billions of dollars the United States is spending to fight two wars abroad and shore up its economic system, a Chavez-controlled development bank would fill a void — and enhance his standing — in the region.

But all of this may be for naught if the Venezuelan president doesn't take to heart the admonition of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local."

Chavez's popularity, while still high enough to give his party an impressive showing in last month's elections, is threatened by a surging crime rate that helped the opposition party win governorships in three of the country's most populous states, plus the mayor's office in Caracas.The danger for Chavez is one that many populist leaders face when their message collides with the day-to-day survival concerns of the people they govern.

A 2002 coup that nearly toppled him and a failed 2004 recall vote have helped keep the revolutionary fervor of Chavez's supporters high, but other Venezuelans have more basic concerns as crime rages out of control. The country of 26 million has averaged 10,000 homicides a year since Chavez took office, The Washington Post reported in 2006.

While Chavez has done much to reduce illiteracy and protect the rights of his country's indigenous people, crime in the capital city of Caracas has turned it into one of the world's most violent cities.

So not surprisingly, Antonio Ledezma, one of Chavez's longtime political opponents, was elected mayor of Caracas last month. He made crime and poor trash collection — not Chavez's leftist leanings — the top issue in that contest.

While Ledezma's party managed to win just five governorships, those victories came in heavily populated areas that are home to 40 percent of Venezuela's population.

That's a warning sign Chavez shouldn't ignore.The governors' races and the mayoral election in Caracas suggest that, like politicians the world over, Chavez needs to work a lot harder on the basics of government than on his grand scheme.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rangel shouldn't fall on his sword

By DeWayne Wickham

Charlie Rangel is in a tough spot.

Two newspapers — his hometown The New York Times and The Washington Post – have called for him to step down as chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means while ethics violation charges against him are investigated.

The Harlem congressman says he's guilty of nothing more than bad judgment. But the Times claims that Rangel, now in his 19th term, has committed a long list of transgressions, including helping an oil and gas drilling company keep a federal tax loophole in place while the company's chief executive was pledging a $1 million gift to a City College of New York school named in Rangel's honor.

As bad as that sounds, the case against Rangel has been based mainly on newspaper reports and has not moved much beyond that toward legal evidence.

So far, there are no claims of the existence of audio or videotape recordings of the congressman breaking the law, or clear offering of proof that he violated any ethics rules. And there's been no call by the House Democratic Caucus, or its steering committee, for Rangel to give up his chairmanship.

In fact, House Democrats voted unanimously last month to let Rangel maintain his leadership of the tax-writing committee — a decision they can reverse anytime they see fit.

While denying any wrongdoing, Rangel has asked the House ethics committee to investigate allegations against him. That's exactly what the panel is doing. Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects the committee to finish its work and issue a report on Rangel before the next Congress convenes on Jan.6.

In the absence of that report, or a call from the Democratic Caucus for him to step down, Rangel shouldn't give in to media calls for him to resign his chairmanship.

News organizations play an important role in uncovering acts of wrongdoing by public officials. But their reports, even when factual, often don't constitute proof as needed to seat a grand jury, or the probable cause necessary for law enforcement to target someone for investigation. And up to now, Rangel has neither been indicted, nor has it been announced that he is the subject of a criminal probe.

Sure, the allegations made in the Times stories appear to be damning, but no public official should be stripped of a position on the basis of a newspaper story — alone.

In court, no one ever looks guiltier than when the charges against him are being argued, famed defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran once told me. And defendants never look more innocent than when their side of the case is being presented. The same is often true with the news media.

From now until Jan. 6, the ethics committee likely will hear testimony for and against Rangel and then render its decision. One way or another, this matter is expected to be settled between the time the new Congress convenes and before Barack Obama's swearing-in on Jan. 20.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington if he won the White House. Now, as head of the Democratic Party, he'll inherit a share of the responsibility for dealing with Rangel if the allegations against him prove true and remain unresolved when Obama moves into the Oval Office.

Until then — until the ethics committee, his Democratic colleagues or some legal entity conclude otherwise Rangel should retain his post. For now, he has every right to ignore calls, by newspapers flexing their muscles, for him to fall on his sword.