"I'm Jose from Santa Fe!"


Maybe the biggest measure of how the Democratic victory has affected Take Back America (and other liberal events, I'm guessing) is the decreased availability of Democratic congressfolk. Last year I watched Rep. John Conyers, then the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, lecture a half-full room that had come to discuss the topic "Eruptions: Challenging a Lawless President." One of his co-panelists hailed from AfterDowningStreet.org. Toward the end of the panel an oddball was called on for a "question," and she gave a lengthy, rambling speech about how the Los Angeles Urban Garden was being shut down "as we speak" and Democrats needed to act to save Darryl Hannah. Conyers listened and glowered patiently.

This year Conyers was scheduled to speak on "Curbing an Imperial Presidency": The moderator was former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, the co-panelists were Joe "Ask Me About Scooter Libby" Wilson, Joe Conason, and Marcy Wheeler. But Conyers was called away for an actual leadership meeting and his legal eagle Burt Wides had to give his speech for him. The gist: We're going to "take back the Constitution," restore Habeas Corpus, and roll back the presidential power to wiretap and to torture. It fell rather faintly on a hungry crowd who wanted to hear about (at least) criminal charges against or (at best) impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

Joe Conason, author of the less-promising-than-its-title It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush (working subhed: Star-Spangled Fascism in Bush's America) gave a warmly receieved speech on the power of the press, then tangled with the impeachment campaigners. (Whenever someone grumbled about impeachment I looked at Conason, who rolled his eyes, and Tina Richards, the military mom made sorta-famous by confronting Rep. David Obey on war funding, who nodded.) The question first came up and he dismissed impeachment as a politically unviable waste of time. When Bob Fertik of Democrats.com challenged him—"the polls show a majority of Americans want an impeachment hearings!"—Conason waved him off. "Let me answer that non-question. It will let the Republicans say that Congress isn't doing what you [voters] elected them to do, and it won't pass the Senate."

The big star of the panel was Joe Wilson, who's grown a new beard and moved west ("I used to be Joe from D.C. Now I'm Jose from Santa Fe!" Big laugh line, amazingly.) He joyfully recounted the time Tim Russert called him on saying Dick Cheney was a "lying son of a bitch." "He looked ponderously down at his notes," Wilson remembered. "That was his 'gotcha' question." But he had, indeed, called Cheney an SOB: "We live in a country where the citizenry can get up every day, and call the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, anybody else in the administration, lying sons of bitches and live to see the sun go down." When he closed by thanking bloggers who'd "fought for our backs," including Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, his voice started breaking: he sat down and wiped his eyes as the crowd cheered. He left early and exchanged hugs and cheek-kisses with Hamsher on the way out the door.

The most interesting exchange came near the very end, after Podesta had heard a week's worth of griping about presidential power crammed into one hour. "Keep in mind," he said, "we could go too far in hobbling the president. The next president will repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. Congress won't support it. We want to restore some balance, but you don't want to give all of this power to Congress."

"Even if you think there should be no limit to the power of the presidency," Wides said, "we should have complete transparency and access to information from the executive branch."

"Well, I agree," Podesta said. "And we were very good in that regard in the Clinton White House."