avatar
Looking for Bill Clinton in Columbus Junction:


 

Columbus Junction is a small Iowa town located about 35 miles south of Iowa City in the rolling hills of Louisa County. I went there last Friday to ask Bill Clinton a question about his wife’s position on the United States’ colonial occupation of Iraq.

 

The day before, Hillary Clinton had said something interesting to a voter who asked her when she’d deliver on her repeated promise to “end the war in Iraq” and “bring the troops home.”

 

"I think,” Hillary said, “we can bring home one to two combat brigades a month. I think we can bring nearly everybody home, you know, certainly within a year if we keep at it and do it very steadily.”

 

Political journalists and campaign watchers did a double-take the first time they heard that line. Hilllary has been speaking adamantly against any notion of an Iraq withdrawal timeline heading up to the critical January 3rd 2008 Iowa Democratic Party caucus.

 

Her two main opponents in the Iowa presidential race do talk about timelines.  John Edwards says “50,000 troops out immediately” and “the rest out in 9 months.” Barack Obama talks about 16 months.

 

With words like “can” and “if” and “nearly everybody,” Hillary’s comment was carefully hedged. Still, Mrs. Clinton has been opposed to any sort of explicit time frames for ending the invasion. She’s never hinted at “a year” or any other specific period before.

 

Was Hillary moving toward a timeline position?

 

I dashed down Highway 218 through a growing December fog to the Columbus Junction Community School, where Bill was scheduled to speak on behalf of his wife at 1:15 in the afternoon.  I had a two-part question in my pocket, written in the margins of the day’s New York Times: "Mr. President, I’m sure you know that Iowa leads the nation in Iraq war casualties. Sir, what is Hillary’s plan to bring the troops home and how soon will she get it done"?

 

Arriving a few minutes late, I found 75 or so white middle-aged and senior Iowans sitting quietly on folding chairs in front of a short elevated platform. In shiny brown gymnasium bleachers on either side sat maybe 100 middle-school students.  Two-thirds of them were Latino.  A nice white-haired lady wearing a Hillary button sat next to me.  She said a major meatpacking plant operated somewhere close by, employing a large Mexican-American workforce at very low wages. The lady said she’s been “waiting all my life to see a woman in the White House.”

 

Up on the stage a smiling 40-something white male music teacher led a half-Latina school choir through a song that included the following lyric:  “I’m proud to be an American because at least I know I’m free.” It struck me that “at least” is a rather unenthusiastic phrase to use in describing how one feels about possessing something as wonderful as human liberty.  I wondered if any of the children on the stage or in the bleachers had seen their parents taken away in any of the raids the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has recently conducted at Iowa packinghouses. 

 

There was no Bill Clinton. The fog had kept his plane on the ground in Des Moines. He would, however, speak to us via telephone and through two loudspeakers set up on either side of the school gym. 

 

At the same time, Hillary was represented by her Iowa campaign chair and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. Both spoke five minutes on Hillary’s behalf.

 

While the very first thing Vilsack said in support of Mrs. Clinton was that "we’ve got a war to end," Iraq received no specific treatment from either him or Kulongoski. There were a few brief  references to the need to regain U.S. global authority and respect through cooperation and diplomacy, but domestic issues and especially health care took up most of the meeting.  

 

Vilsack gave three reasons to caucus for Hillary. The first reason was her possession of the experience and “know-how” to “get things done.” The way the former Iowa governor put it, it’s not enough to “hope for change” (a cutting reference to Barack Obama) and it’s not enough “to demand change” (an equally obvious allusion to John Edwards).

 

It struck me that even if Hillary actually did have a lot of policy-making experience (she does not), it might not be a very good asset in this particular campaign given how angry ordinary citizens and voters are about the incredible messes “their”  highly experienced and bipartisan governing class have created at home and abroad.   

 

I also reflected that Edwards is right if he’s into “demanding.”  The only significant moments of progressive change in American history have actually been driven by masses of organized and often enough angry people insisting on such change in a militant way. It’s been about farmers, workers, “minorities,” the poor and others shaking the society to its foundation at the grassroots level. It’s never been about people relying on the supposedly benevolent corporate-liberal elites and the supposedly all-knowing Ivy-League-certified experts (people like Bill, Hillary and Barack) to fix things from the top down.  It’s always been about the people challenging concentrated power centers and, well, "demanding" change – or else – from the bottom up (see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492 to the Present [New York: HarperPerennial], 1999).

 

The second reason Vilsack gave was that "Hillary can win.”  I said to myself that you’d think somebody could win with a record-setting $90 million in campaign funding – at least half from large corporations – in the first three quarters of the year before the actual election year.  And yet, I reflected, Hillary is actually doing considerably worse than Obama and especially Edwards in match-up polls pitting each of the top three Democratic candidates against the most likely Republican opponents. 

 

Vilsack probably felt compelled to throw in his “can win” line because Hillary appears to be the least electable of the top three candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

 

Vilsack’s third reason was that putting a woman in the White House would “show that every opportunity is now available to everyone in the United States.”

 

Sorry Tom, but one relatively privileged woman attaining the presidency would not mean that gender, race, and class had been abolished as barriers to advancement and equality.

 

Kulongoski announced that he’d once been a “labor lawyer” and talked about how badly America treats its working people. He praised American workers for “doing everything we ask of them” and bemoaned the fact that they “don’t get the rewards they deserve.” He waxed angry about jobs exported, pensions stolen and health benefits slashed.

 

“I’ve been waiting,” the Oregon Governor added, “for a candidate who is willing to address the problems of working people and who cares about them.”

 

I turned to the nice lady next to me and said, “you know, that’s really a bit much.  Anybody’s who’s gotten any of Edwards’ direct mail, or seen any of Edwards’ town hall meetings or seen any of Edwards’ television commercials knows damn well that’s his main thing. Like it or hate it, that’s what his campaign is all about – mistreated and exploited working class people.” 

 

She looked concerned. She knew I was right: it’s impossible to miss if you are paying the slightest bit of attention to the competing campaigns in Iowa.  Voters are being inundated with campaign materials and commercials anyone who has sampled this propaganda to any significant extent ought to know that Kulongoski was trying to appropriate Edwards’ main hook – for Hillary.

 

It came time to hear from Bill Clinton on the loudspeakers. The former president focused on domestic issues and his wife’s competence and experience. He spent two-thirds of his ten minutes on health care, heaping special praise on his favorite supposed corporate-liberal enterprise – the Safeway grocery chain.  Bill loves Safeway because it "picks up the health insurance deductibles and co-pays" for employees who agree to take personal responsibility for their health by “not smoking.”

 

Clinton claimed that he and Hillary failed in their earlier effort to bring American universal health insurance because “it’s hard.”  “Harry Truman tried and he failed to pass health care.  Jimmy Carter tried and he failed.” 

 

There was nothing in his remarks, of course, about the elitist, indecipherable, and conservative, corporate-friendly nature of the health care plan the Clintons briefly advanced and then quickly dropped to pursue “progressive” priorities like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

 

But health care reform is “going to succeed under Hillary,” Bill predicted, for two reasons.  First, “employers now want it,” because health care costs are too high.  Second, “the medical community” wants reform because it has gotten sick of “the financial tail wagging the medical dog.” 

 

In other words, vote for Hillary and let business and professional elites take their own self-interested path to health care reform.  It’s got nothing to do with ordinary people standing up to fight for what’s right by demanding that the U.S. finally join the rest of the “advanced capitalist world” by having the elementary decency and common sense to guarantee its citizens health care.

 

Since Bill wasn’t there live, Friday’s Columbus Junction event never opened for audience questions.

 

I clearly wasn’t going to put Bill on the Six O’clock News supporting or contradicting Hillary’s possible shift towards a timeline on Iraq withdrawal. 

 

Still, I had my question and I hadn’t driven down there not to ask it.  So I sought out and spoke briefly with an anonymous policy staffer (she would not give her name), Vilsack, and Kulongoski.

 

My question to each:  "what is Hillary’s plan to bring the troops home?  How soon will she get it done?"  I indicated that this was an especially big concern in Iowa due to our state’s large number of casualties. 

 

All of them denied — and seemed completely ignorant of – any sort of change to a "timeline" of any kind in Hillary’s Iraq policy.  All of them emphasized what they called "safety": the need for a "safe and secure" withdrawal.  All indicated that giving “timelines” (ala Edwards and Obama) would work against that.

 

In elaborating on why Hillary’s “get things done” campaign was NOT following Edwards (the demander) and Obama (the hoper) in setting distinct time points for removal, Vilsack also discussed the need to first "stabilize Iraq" through international diplomacy and an influx of NGOs and and the risk that "the north" and the "situation with the Kurds" could "blow up" if we left too soon.  

 

I heard a bit about “the plan” ("safe withdrawal” and "stabilize" with (corporate-liberal) NGOs and “diplomacy”) but the "how soon" part went completely unanswered.  “How soon" was a dysfunctional question as far as they were concerned – the wrong issue to be raising. 

 

My most interesting exchange with the Clintonites in Columbus Junction wasn’t about foreign policy.  It was about so-called “economic war.” 

 

After discussing Hillary’s Iraq policy with Kulongoski, I said the following to Oregon‘s chief executive:  "just for your information, Governor, we voters see a lot of ads and get a lot of mail from Edwards. He speaks all over this state, and with him it’s always about working people and how they get mistreated and so forth. He gets a lot of union worker support because of that. I wondered if you knew that when you dropped that ‘I’ve been waiting for a candidate who cares about workers’ line. You really ought to know."

 

Kulongoski didn’t miss a beat. He just smiled and said, "Edwards?  Oh, but we’re not talking about war."

 

"War"" I said.

 

"Economic war," he said.

 

"You mean ‘class war," I said.

 

"Yeah.  Look I’ve been at this too long.  It’s about getting things done.”

 

I was getting ready to ask him what he thought of the notion that the American “get-things-done” business “community” had been waging savage “class warfare” of the unmentionable kind – from the top down – on American working people for all of my adult life. “Class war” has been going on for the last thirty-five years at least in the U.S. It appears to work quite well, for the privileged few.

 

But Kulogonski had to go.  The former labor lawyer (was he pro- or anti-union?) and Vilsack had other locations to hit with their conservative, corporate (neo-)liberal message wrapped in the pseudo-progressive flag of identity politics. Yes, by all means, let’s run around telling people that electing Hillary will mean that the only remaining barriers to racial, economic, and gender equality are internal to the people on the bottom ends of the nation’s steep social hierarchies. 

 

The most interesting comment I’d gotten hadn’t been from Bill Clinton and about the imperialist war on Iraq.  It came from the governor of Oregon and had to with class inequality inside the imperial “homeland.”

 

The Clintonites’ point and Bill’s too, was clear as day. It was this: “Let’s all be adult and realistic here. The way you get things done is by working with and through corporations and professional elites. You don’t get it by fighting concentrated power."

 

On the way into the Columbus Junction event, a Clinton staffer handed me a copy of the Des Moines Register editorial in which that influential Iowa newspaper endorsed Hillary.  The sixth paragraph of that editorial reads as follows:

 

“John Edwards was our pick for the 2004 nomination.  But this is a different race, with different candidates.  We too seldom saw the positive, optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004.  His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.”

 

During the last debate prior to the Iowa Caucus, the Register’s editor Carolyn Washburn suggested that Edwards should be less strident in criticizing big business since wealthy and special interests “are often responsible for getting things done in Washington” (Krugman 2007b). 

 

They most certainly are – and the results are very bad indeed, as I noted in my last Iowa Campaign Report (“‘Angry John’ v. KumbayObama’: Reflections on Iowa, Business Rule, and the Democratic Party’s Democratic Disconnect,” ZNet December 20, 2007, read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=90&ItemID=14533).

 

Dominant U.S. media is not simply beholden to the business establishment, it should always be remembered. It is a critical component – possibly even the single more powerful part (unlike Ralph Nader, the “anti-corporate” “populist” Edwards dares not criticize corporate media during a campaign season) – of that establishment. Meanwhile, the business-sponsored authoritarian drift of U.S. political culture has gone so far that even an Edwards – not just a Nader or a Dennis Kucinich – is too left to receive respectful treatment from “mainstream” (corporate) media Gods.

 

 

I headed back to Iowa City.  The fog had thickened. I thought about Bill Clinton, the Safeway chain (the “safe way” to “progressive” reform is with and through business elites), and how happy I am that I never got hooked on cigarettes. Sometimes I think that the major self-imposed threat to my health is that I spend too much time driving on dangerous country roads to listen to corporate politicians.

 

 

Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm). His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Leave a comment