In praise of making a stink

Last week was enough to make you believe that the voice of the people can make a difference.

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The battle between the public interest and the special interests can be a demoralizing one. It sometimes seems like every dispatch from the front brings bad news. A judge appointed by President Bush rules that Dick Cheney can keep all the secrets he wants. Major GOP donor Eli Lilly gets a legislative gift worth billions anonymously slipped into the Homeland Security Bill at the last minute. The president’s pick to take over the Treasury is CEO of a company that, despite close to a billion dollars in profits, paid not a penny in federal taxes in three of the last four years.

It’s enough to make a decent citizen throw up his hands — and his lunch — and accept the cynical notion that nothing any of us says or does can make a difference anymore.

Then along comes a week like the last one. And you think, maybe there is a Santa Claus.

Bam, Kissinger resigns! Boom, Cardinal Law quits! Chomp, Trent Lott goes from smug Senate majority leader to bloody political chum floating in a tank of hungry sharks! Whoosh, President Bush stuns the crowd by supporting an extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, and also reverses course by boosting the budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission!

Score five for the power of the people. It’s the sort of week that happens rarely enough that we should take note of what might have caused it. And if the events do have something in common, it’s this: None of these things would have happened if it weren’t for the torrent of public outrage, protest, and criticism directed at each of those targets.

Take the Kissinger appointment. Almost from the moment it was announced, the president’s bewildering choice of Henry the K to head the 9/11 commission stuck in the craw of most sentient Americans — with the exception of those who subscribe to the notion that it takes a thief to catch a thief. Why select the most incorrigible obfuscator of the 20th century to get to the bottom of the horrors of Sept. 11? All across the country, people shook their heads — and their fists — and wondered: What could the White House have been thinking?

The most charitable answer (hey, it’s Christmas) is not very much. The White House had been so cavalier about its choice — and so smug about its own popularity — that it hadn’t even bothered to do the customary vetting of Kissinger’s tangled web of conflicted interests.

Thankfully, the American people — led by a chorus of media pundits — were far more diligent and demanded the obvious: That Kissinger come clean about his super-secret client list or step down. He chose the latter, preferring to give up on his promise to “go where the facts lead us” rather than give up his wildly lucrative consulting gig. Thank you for your public service, Henry.

And it’s a good thing the people were on Kissinger’s case, because the “loyal opposition” certainly wasn’t. No one in the Democratic leadership had the guts to call for his ouster — or even demand the release of his radioactive client list. I guess they were all too consumed with watching each of the 158 TV appearances Al Gore made in recent weeks, trying to figure out if they were gonna have to shove ol’ Al out of the way on their 2004 runs for the White House.

If the Democrats dropped the ball on Kissinger, it was the mainstream media that were asleep at the wheel on the Lott story. No fewer than a dozen reporters were present when Lott waxed nostalgic about Jim Crow at Strom Thurmond’s birthday bash, but only one, ABC News producer Ed O’Keefe, thought it newsworthy. His bosses didn’t share his enthusiasm however, and, after running the story on a 4:30 a.m. broadcast, didn’t use it on either “Good Morning America” or “World News Tonight.” The rest of the major media outlets also initially reacted with a collective shrug.

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Thank God for the Internet. It was in cyberspace that scores of bloggers — including Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com, Glenn Reynolds of instapundit.com, Mickey Klaus of klausfiles.com, and Andrew Sullivan of andrewsullivan.com — continued hammering away at the story, and eventually succeeded in moving it out of the shadows into the political spotlight.

It’s important to note that these cyber-pundits — the vast majority of whom are unpaid amateurs — didn’t just rail against the repulsiveness of Lott’s comments and the lameness of his subsequent kinda-sorta apologies. They also were instrumental in helping connect the dots of the majority leader’s long history of racist stances, including his college-era fight to keep blacks out of his University of Mississippi fraternity, his resistance to honoring the memories of slain civil rights heroes Martin Luther King and Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, his ringing support of Confederate icon Jefferson Davis, and his too-cozy-for-comfort relationship with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. The blizzard of damning information left little doubt that Lott’s comments had not been, as he first claimed, merely “a poor choice of words.” Politicians talk a lot about their words being “taken out of context.” Well, Lott is in trouble because his words were actually put in context.

It was a most democratic uprising — and showed the power of the Internet when it is truly free of the dependence on access, and the need to play nice with the powers that be.

The one upside to the fact that we no longer have any real leaders, only ersatz ones slavishly addicted to following public opinion, is that, at the end of the day, public outrage really matters.

Witness the presidential flip-flops on unemployment benefits and funding the SEC. Karl Rove’s legendary political antennae were obviously getting the message loud and clear: cutting off benefits to laid-off workers in the middle of the holiday season was making Bush look like Scrooge and backing off on enforcing new corporate responsibility laws was making him look like a corporate stooge. Why else would the president suddenly get religion on issues he’s been dodging for months? He even went so far as to declare that extending the benefits should be the “first order of business” for the new Congress. Damn, that must have been one ticked-off focus group!

Paradoxically, in these days of instant communications and 24-hour news channels it’s getting easier to ignore information we might otherwise pay attention to. And constant revelations of political corruption have left us numb and a little outrage-weary. It now takes an alert team of media first responders to get, grab, and hold our attention.

These latest victories of vox populi remind us that, by standing up and voicing our dissent, we can still make a difference — at least for a week.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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