Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gore Vidal Highlights Anti-War Rally March 15

400 People Attend Protest on Fifth Anniversary of U.S. Invasion


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Gore Vidal with Floyd Morrow, Nadia Keilani, Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, Kenyon Ralph

The scene for this year’s annual commemoration and protest of the U.S. war against Iraq — now in its fifth year with, as the title of a documentary film about it said, “no end in sight” — was different. Instead of holding the March 15 rally in Balboa Park, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice decided to stage it in City Heights, marching from Fairmount and University to the dusty vest-pocket Teralta Park on 40th and Orange. They also got a celebrity speaker, octogenarian author and social critic Gore Vidal, though little of the promotional material mentioned his name. The event attracted 400 people — about the same number as in previous years — but the crowd, though small, was lively, spirited and committed.

Vidal, who uses a wheelchair and had to be helped onto the stage by former San Diego City Councilmember and current mayoral candidate Floyd Morrow, called President Bush “as low as we’ve ever fallen” in a chief executive. “Harding just had friends who stole money — and all of us have had friends who stole money. I don’t know if we’ll get Bush out in 2008. The Republicans will pull out all stops, fix all the voting machines, and if you’re voting for the Democrat, your vote won’t be counted.”

In a short and rather rambling presentation, Vidal recalled his last visit to San Diego in 1982 — when he was running for the U.S. Senate in a Democratic primary against then-outgoing governor Jerry Brown (who defeated him but then lost the general election to the Republican, former San Diego mayor Pete Wilson). He remembered that Floyd Morrow had introduced him on that occasion, too, and thanked Morrow for having been the only Democratic county chair who had endorsed him over Brown in that race.

Vidal said that in 1982 “I had no feeling … that we’d ever have something like the Bush administration,” and said he could be happy with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as Bush’s replacement. “I see Hillary and Obama as two halves of the President we might have had,” he said. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, and the system is doing better than we have a right to expect. Yes, there’s the governor of New York” — a reference to the sex scandal that had just driven Elliot Spitzer from office — “but there are always governors of New York.”

Despite his earlier skepticism that the Republicans would actually allow themselves to be voted out of office, later on Vidal said that “there’s going to be a real housecleaning” in public office. “We’ve had too many creeps, including the Congressman you had with all the yachts” — a reference to Randy “Duke” Cunningham, forced from office and into prison for accepting bribes from defense contractors. “Each of us bears responsibility for Bush,” Vidal said, adding that when he lived in Italy (in a villa in a remote village until his disabilities forced him to move and he returned to the U.S.) “I had to explain that we Americans aren’t as dumb as we look.”

Vidal briefly recalled his famous 1960’s feud with conservative author and editor William F. Buckley and told a grim joke about Buckley finding himself in hell — taking satisfaction in having outlived his one-time rival. He abruptly finished his speech with an odd joke: “There are a lot of retired people living here, and I think I’ll join them.”

After Vidal spoke, poet Olga Garcia Etcheverria read in both Spanish and English, and she in turn was followed by Nadia Keilani of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. The fiery Keilani was far less hopeful about the American political process than Vidal had been. She said that both Democrats and Republicans “tiptoe around the issue” of Iraq “and refuse to say that the war has been a failure.”

In a series of grim statistics, Keilani documented just what a failure it has been and how much worse off the Iraqi people are today than they were under Saddam Hussein. “Since the invasion, the number of Iraqi children facing starvation has surged from 4 percent to 8 percent,” she said. “When we invaded, 25 percent of Iraqis were unemployed; now it’s 70 percent. Before the invasion, 50 percent of Iraqis lacked clean drinking water; now it’s 70 percent. Five years ago, Iraqis had continuous access to electricity; now they have one to two hours a day. Three years ago, 65 percent of Iraqis wanted the U.S. out; now it’s 78 percent. Those who thought this administration was too incompetent to accomplish anything were wrong. It has accomplished the complete destruction of Iraq and the bankruptcy of the U.S.”

Noting that the mainstream U.S. media — which served as cheerleaders for the administration during the run-up to the war and parroted Bush’s lies about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda — is now saying that “the surge is working,” Keilani said, “Any temporary decrease in violence in Iraq has had less to do with the 20,000 additional troops and more to do with the $10 per day the Bush administration is paying Iraqis not to resist. This war is the largest armed robbery in history. It has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, democracy or anything good and noble. It has to do with enriching large multinational corporations. It is time for the war to end, and for the people of Iraq and Palestine to live in freedom and dignity.”

The March 15 action in San Diego was part of a national mobilization called “Health Care, Not Warfare,” and Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, a family doctor from Ocean Beach and an activist with Physicians for a National Health Program, was brought on to make that connection. “We’re here to memorialize the beginning sixth year of this war,” said Dr. Gordon. “There are soon to be 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in action, whose flag-draped coffins have been deliberately hidden from our sight. Second is the continued suffering and ongoing burden of the 30,000 men and women who have been wounded in that war [and are] floundering in the under-resources V.A. system. And third is the uncounted casualties the government keeps off the roster because they were not ‘combat-related.’”

Most of Dr. Gordon’s speech was a broad-based attack on President Bush, not only over the war in Iraq but just about everything he’s done in office. “King George has spent eight years spreading poverty, illness, suffering and pain across the country,” he said. “We have an evolving economic crisis. Our country is economically broken. The gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is greater than at any time in our history. After paying inflated prices for gas and food, only the wealthy will be able to pay the insurance premiums and co-payments needed to access health care.” Dr. Gordon cited the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — “bloated bodies in the water and continued civil chaos in Louisiana” — and said, “King George let the city atrophy and brought a part of our nation to Third World squalor.”

Among the points of Dr. Gordon’s indictment of the Bush administration were his “crass promotion for creationism,” his opposition to funding most stem-cell research, and the suppression of scientists within the administration whose conclusions on global warming and environmental issues ran against Bush’s ideology. Dr. Gordon said that Bush’s policies on science have been so devastating that “the former dean of UCSD Medical School has moved to Singapore to continue his research.” Dr. Gordon also said, referencing the scandal over tainted doses of heparin made in China that have already killed over 30 Americans, that “the power of the drug companies has made me, as a physician, unsure of the health and safety of the medications I prescribe to you and the reliability of the research I read.”

But Dr. Gordon’s strongest and most personal attack on Bush was over his opposition to expanding access to health care. “Year after year, Bush’s economic advisers have compared health insurance to car insurance, and pretended that common preventive services are like trips to the car wash and shouldn’t be covered by insurance,” he said. “His economic advisers ignore all evidence from 30 years of failure to promote the ideologies of private, for-profit medicine, and they try to trash effective government programs. The corporate, for-profit health insurance industry skims $500 billion a year out of health insurance premiums for their own administration and profit, a sum of money which is equal to the annual budget of the Pentagon without the costs of the war, and is enough to pay for health care for all 47 million Americans who don’t already have it — a number that has gone up by 7 million since Bush entered office.”

Dr. Gordon attacked Bush for his veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reauthorization — which was at least partly motivated by Bush’s fear that people eligible for SCHIP would dump their expensive, inefficient, high-deductible private health plans for cheaper, broader public alternatives . He noted that even an establishment health organization like the American Cancer Society has come out for a single-payer system, which would leave medical care in private hands but replace the for-profit health-insurance industry with a publicly run program, because they realize that ‘the best way to improve cancer survival rates these days is universal health insurance, not more research.”

Kenyon Ralph, president of the San Diego chapter of Iraqi Veterans Against the War, came up briefly to discuss the national organization’s Winter Soldier Investigation (named after the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War’s public conferences in the early 1970’s), in which veterans of the current war and others who have served in the military since 9/11 will speak publicly about the experiences. These programs, Ralph said, “show that we’re taking responsibility for what’s happening even though the Bush administration isn’t.”

“We may be small, but we have numbers and power,” said Maria Cortez, local activist with the City Heights Town Council. “We were lied to, never told the truth, to get us into a war we shouldn’t have been in. We’re not against the troops. We’re against what we were told we were going to war for.”