Howard Fineman

Stories by Howard Fineman

  • Changing the Script

    If you want to get ratings with the action drama that is the American presidency, you need a compelling plot and a hero with a stirring image.Since 9/11, George W. Bush has topped the charts with GWOT (bureaucratese for the “global war on terror"), in which producer-director Karl Rove features his leading man as commander in chief on the global battlements. It's a mix of Ike at Normandy, Ronald Reagan in Berlin and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”But ratings for “Bush, the War President” have collapsed (something to do with the loss of blood and treasure in Iraq). And Americans don’t like overseas stories in any case.Politically, the war in Iraq is a loser; Bush has said as much. So for the new season—the fall congressional elections and beyond—there will be a new shooting script and a reshaped presidential character.I saw the rushes the other day when the Republican National Committee released the text of a radio ad and Bush held a hastily called press conference. The revamped story line...
  • The GOP's Abortion Anxiety

    When South Dakota approved a law sharply restricting abortion last week, many pro-life Republicans around the country sounded a loud hallelujah. But at least one very senior Republican did not seem at all eager to join in the chorus. As Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, flew to Memphis to attend the first gathering of potential GOP presidential candidates for 2008, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked him if he had anything to say about the South Dakota law. "No," he said. Did he plan to make a statement on that topic at the Republican gathering in Memphis? "No" was the answer. Would he ever be willing to comment on the topic, other than to say that it's up to the states to make their own choices on abortion? Again, the answer was "no." The look on his face was more expressive. It appeared to ask, "Are you kidding?"Why such reticence to embrace glad tidings? After all, the abortion issue has been good to the Republican Party. It has energized Roman Catholic and...
  • Straw Poll Strategy

    In a sense, Sen. John McCain’s campaign for the presidency in 2008 began with a personal, private phone call he made last week—to President George W. Bush.A good source told me about it here the other day, in a quiet moment at the Southern Republicans’ conference at the Peabody Hotel, and McCain himself confirmed it at a reception hosted by Mississippi Republicans at one of the noisiest places in town, BB King’s restaurant.Private though it was, the McCain call was emblematic of the ‘08 strategy that he and his circle have decided to pursue. They want to build out their campaign with members of the Bush circle, and base McCain’s pitch on the notion that he is the only sensible, electable and competent commander who can take control of the war on terror.“Competence and electability,” that’s what we’re going to talk about,” said a key advisor. “If you support the president’s vision, John can carry it forward.”The road less traveledKnown as an outsider and maverick, McCain in 2008 has...
  • Awaiting the Almighty

    If you're a republican who wants to be president, the place to be this weekend is Memphis's Peabody Hotel, with its parading ducks--and politicians. Unless, of course, you're Rudy Giuliani. In that case, you skip the Southern Republican Leadership Conference even if--or, rather, especially because--it's the unofficial launch of the GOP's 2008 presidential cycle. Let lesser birds flock there; "America's mayor" will be traveling on business. For a man with near-total name ID, a 9/11 hero's aura--and, most valuable in these post-Katrina days, a reputation for administrative competence--it's best to fly alluringly alone for now.The GOP's '08 cycle has barely begun, but it's already produced a cliche: that this is "the most wide-open race since 1952." It's true that, in a party inclined to royal successions, there is no heir apparent--literally, in this case, since Florida Gov. Jeb Bush isn't running to succeed his brother. But it's also true that outlines of a hierarchy are visible,...
  • Hillary's Money Politics

    If you are a reporter, getting into a Hillary Clinton fund-raiser in Los Angeles—or almost anywhere else, for that matter—is no easy trick. I managed to do it few years ago in Bel Air when a friend took me along as her personal guest to a carefully guarded cocktail party at the home of movie executive Alan Horn. There were three layers you had to pass through, from the usual ticket-takers to some scowling security guys. I figured that, in the days not long after 9/11, the junior senator from New York wanted to keep her toughly worded anti-Bush rhetoric (the kind that excites Democratic hearts and opens their wallets) safely behind the closed, hand-rubbed doors.Three years later, the veil is slowly beginning to drop. The political risk for banging away at George W. Bush is gone. And the senator's strategy for locking up the Democratic presidential nomination certainly is no secret: raise so much money, and build such a state-of-the-art machine, that competitors will fold their tents...
  • Boomers: Which Way Will Their Politics Go?

    The baby boomers tacked left, then right. Where will their politics go in the golden years? The 'I want it all and I want it now' crowd confronts its hardest campaigns.
  • Living Politics: Winners and Losers

    Forget the black hat. Everybody in Washington is obsessed with Jack Abramoff's gangsterlike attire as he came out of the federal courthouse. But the thing that jumps out at me is the figure $20,194,000. If I read the fed's plea-agreement papers correctly, that's the amount of cold cash that the Republican lobbyist siphoned from Indian tribes and stashed in his secret accounts.You may not believe this, but in this city, that is an unheard of amount of money for a lobbyist to haul in--and the number itself signifies a troubling change in the nature of life in the capital of our country.The denizens of D.C. deal in trillions of dollars. But they are YOUR dollars: tax receipts and federal spending. Lawyers and lobbyists here do well. Still, they haven't generally been in the same league as money-power types in, say, New York or Los Angeles. This was a city in which official position meant more than a plush vacation home; in which a Ph.D. or J.D. meant more than a BMW. Traditionally, the...
  • Battle for America

    As young men in law school in the 1970s, neither Mark Warner nor George Allen set the legal world on fire. At Harvard, "I was the only guy I knew who didn't get a law-firm offer after summer internships," says Warner. At the University of Virginia, Allen seemed to prefer deer hunting to textbook reading; his mud-splattered truck was a rare sight in the law-school parking lot. As immigrants to Virginia, however, both men spied their main chance in 1982--and took it. Warner cut deals in the burgeoning cell-phone business that made him wealthy. Allen, son of an American football coach, launched his political career in a redistricting of the rural countryside, winning a seat in the state's House of Delegates by 25 votes.As a new election cycle begins, Virginia--and the careers of these two Virginians--is moving to center stage. They offer competing models of how to succeed in the South, where Democrats must be competitive if they hope to win the White House again. Warner, 51, is ending...
  • The Virginians

    As young men in law school in the 1970s, neither Mark Warner nor George Allen set the legal world on fire. At Harvard, Warner founded a group called the Somerville Bar Review--that's "bar" as in drinking studies, not professional ones. "I was the only guy I knew who didn't get law-firm offers after summer internships," he says. At the University of Virginia, Allen lived in a cabin on the mountaintop next to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. But the scenery did more to inspire a passion for deer hunting than textbook reading; his mud-spattered truck was a rare sight in the law-school parking lot. "I probably didn't fit in real well," he says.But then, as immigrants to Virginia, both men spied their main chance in 1982--and took it. Searching for a big financial score, Warner heard through a friend that Atlanta TV mogul Ted Turner had become interested in an infant technology called "cellular" phones. "My law buddies asked, 'Who is going to want to talk on a phone in their car?' " Answer...
  • Bush at the Tipping Point

    As friends describe it, Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania had been searching his soul for months, seeking guidance on what to do in Congress about Iraq. "I think he was going through what we Catholics call a 'long night of the soul'," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. In 1974, Democrat Murtha had become the first Vietnam veteran elected to the House. A decorated Marine from the mountainous "Deer Hunter" country east of Pittsburgh, he had always been a down-the-line hawk and a favorite of the Pentagon generals. Now, at 73, he was the dean of the House on defense spending: a gruff, taciturn pasha receiving supplicants from his perch in the "Pennsylvania corner" of the floor--last row, aisle seat, surrounded by equally beefy cronies. "I like to do things behind the scenes," Murtha explained to NEWSWEEK.But, by last week, Murtha had decided to come out of his corner in spectacular fashion. The result was a turning point--and a low point--in the war at home over the war in Iraq....
  • A Faith-Based Initiative

    The morning after Democrat Tim Kaine won the governorship of Virginia, his first order of business was to attend mass in Richmond, where he said prayers for his father-in-law, who is ill with bladder cancer. It was an apt conclusion to a notable campaign, in which Kaine ran as a mass-attending disciple of Jesuit missionaries and the Roman Catholic Church's social gospel. Kaine accomplished three things. He became the first Catholic to win the top job in Virginia, home of Protestant evangelicals Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He provided a road map into the cultural mainstream for national Democrats. And he highlighted the ever more pivotal role of Catholic politicians, jurists and voters at a time when "values" debates are front and center. "We can't completely separate politics and faith," Kaine told NEWSWEEK. "They rise from the same wellspring: the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be."Formerly a reliable part of the Democratic base, Catholic America ...
  • Can We Go Home Now?

    A homebody by nature, and often unsteady in unscripted public situations, George W. Bush is no fan of high-profile presidential travel. Especially now. With job-approval ratings south of 40 percent--the lowest of his presidency--he risks hearing hecklers, even at his rigorously screened speeches. Foreign trips are even more problematic. At a summit in an Argentine resort, Bush's presence set off protest marches and even riots by anti-free-trade demonstrators last week. Travel offers no escape from the Washington scandal news. When he landed in Mar del Plata, the local TV put up a split-screen of Air Force One--and I. Lewis Libby hobbling into court to plead not guilty in the Valerie Plame leak case. CIA ESCANDALO read the headline. Briefly facing American reporters, Bush fielded only five questions. But four were on a single issue: the fate of Karl Rove, his top White House aide, who has been named--but not indicted--in the federal leak probe. Bush gave lawyerlike answers. "The...
  • Flying Blind

    Dark days: Singed by the special prosecutor and rattled by the Harriet Miers mess, Team Bush is in turmoil.
  • Harriet's Hail Mary

    For 25 years, Tom Rath has been the Bush family's New Hampshire go-to guy: an affable lawyer, member of the Republican National Committee--and prize catch for any would-be contender in the GOP's next presidential race. It was no surprise, then, that when George W. Bush's political team wanted to send ambitious Republican senators a firm message about Harriet Miers (crude summary: "Lay off her if you ever want our help"), they chose Rath to deliver it. On his own, or through an allied group called Progress for America, Rath last week made the family's view clear to George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas, likely candidates on scouting missions to the first-in-the-nation primary state. Not coincidentally, a Bush financial backer in Houston, who had attended a recent Brownback event there, called the Capitol to echo the same--how to put it?--concerned message. "Miers deserves a fair hearing," Rath told NEWSWEEK. "That's all we're saying."Actually, here's what they're...
  • Troubled Waters

    War, storms, leak probes—and a growing array of ethics clouds. Dark days for the Republican Party.
  • Money, Money, Everywhere

    Check, Please: Louisiana Cheered. Democrats--And Some Tightfisted Gopers--Jeered. How We Will Pay For The Katrina Cleanup--And The Political Costs For Bush.
  • A Storm-Tossed Boss

    In September 1965, a massive hurricane hit New Orleans. By the next day the president--a Texan in a time of war--was in the city, visiting a shelter. With no electricity in the darkness there, Lyndon Baines Johnson held a flashlight to his face and proclaimed, "This is the president of the United States and I'm here to help you!" Almost precisely 40 years later, when another horrific hurricane hit the city, the president was, again, a Texan in wartime. But rather than hurry to New Orleans from his Texas ranch, George W. Bush decided, three days after Katrina hit, to fly back to Washington first. Photographers rarely are allowed into the forward cabin of Air Force One, but consigliere Karl Rove and other aides summoned them so they could snap pictures of the Boss gazing out the window as the plane flew over the devastation. Republican strategists privately call the resulting image--Bush as tourist, seemingly powerless as he peered down at the chaos--perhaps among the most damaging of...
  • HUNTING BIG GAME

    Cambria County is Pennsylvania deer-hunter territory, and you had better be careful before you criticize an American war or a commander in chief. In these Alleghenies, full of devout descendants of Eastern European millworkers, you carry a rifle into the woods--and serve in the military--as a way of life. That's why Democrat Bob Casey Jr. treaded as carefully as a hunter with a buck in view when he campaigned last week at Ed Cernic's annual picnic on a hillside above Johnstown. Seeking votes in his campaign to oust Rick Santorum, perhaps the Senate's most vulnerable Republican, Casey mentioned Iraq once--and then only to laud "the valor of those young men and women who are dying for us" there. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Casey crept closer to his target. Santorum, he said, "was not asking the tough questions of this president. What we need most of all to go forward are facts--and this administration isn't giving them to us and leaders such as Santorum aren't asking for them....
  • Threading the Needle

    The Democrats' dilemma: fight now, or save their fire for the next round?
  • Rove at War

    HE ROSE USING TACTICS HIS FOES ARE TURNING AGAINST HIM. BUT NEVER BET AGAINST KARL ROVE.
  • THE SUPREME SALES TEAM

    The Senate was in recess, its members scattered across the planet. Still, Republicans had urgent administrative business to conduct: organizing their Supreme Court talking points for the weekend chat shows. So they set up a globe-spanning "message management" conference call. The nominal host was Majority Leader Bill Frist in Tanzania. But the guy fielding many of the questions late last week wasn't a senator or White House staffer--or even, for that matter, a lawyer. He was a 42-year-old K Street lobbyist and ninja of concussive conservative spin named Ed Gillespie, whose first congressional experience was parking cars. As he spoke, Washington was buzzing with rumors that the chief justice was about to follow Sandra Day O'Connor out the door. "Is Rehnquist retiring?" asked Sen. George Allen of Virginia. There was "no official confirmation," Gillespie said. But his tone had a message: "Get ready."The Gillespie call was a trailer for the film to come: "Supreme Court Apocalypse,"...
  • Living Politics: Explosive Rove Reaction

    The White House press room is a dump of a place, with rickety lecture hall seats, photographers' ladders piled high in the corners, frayed carpeting and a floor that feels hollow, which it is, since the old presidential swimming pool is under it somewhere. In recent days the room also seems like a battleground--the way it used to be in the old Clinton days.The ferocity with which the presidential press corps went after the Karl Rove story is startling, but it shouldn't be surprising.Several media, political and Washington vectors intersected to create an explosive Rove Reaction.Third thoughts on pre-Iraq reportingTake my word, there has been a lot of soul searching in the so-called Main Stream Media (MSM) over its performance, or lack of performance, in the months leading up to the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Specifically, did we replace what should have been professional skepticism with a certain mindless credulousness in assessing the reality of the...
  • THE HOLY WAR BEGINS

    COVER STORY: JUSTICETHE HOLY WAR BEGINSBUSH MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN THE BIG TENT OR THE REVIVAL TENT. INSIDE HIS SUPREME MACHINE.As soon as President George W. Bush officially got the news--Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was retiring--he huddled with his innermost circle. He wanted to give them the word and review the game plan now that he would be choosing a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. As staffers filed into the Oval Office for the regular 9 a.m. meeting last Friday, Bush ushered Vice President Dick Cheney and counselors Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett into the adjacent dining area. A smoothly run vetting process mattered, the president said, but not as much as the identity and history of the person he ultimately selects. "A lot of people are going to be focused on the process," he said, "but when I make the candidate selection, the focus will be on the candidate."Bush was half right: the focus, in fact, is squarely on him, too. Presidencies are defined by key moments. So far, his are...
  • Living Politics: 'The Good Heart'

    George W. Bush wanted me to know that it's what's inside that counts. Early in the 2000 campaign, Sen. John McCain had unexpectedly flattened him in New Hampshire. Bush seemed somehow both combative and resigned. "Whatever happens," he told me one day, "I want you to know that I have a good heart." I think what he meant was: I may lose, but I'm a decent guy. Also: I may play rough and nasty, but I'm a decent guy.Well, now we get to see what's really in George W. Bush's heart. By his nomination (or nominations) shall we know him. Soon enough he will choose someone to be his first pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. Others are likely to follow. If Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires, and Bush elevates Justice Antonin Scalia to that slot, Congress could see the spectacle of THREE confirmation hearings in one season.As I see it, there is a tug-of-war going on--and it's not the one you're already seeing on TV between the lobbying groups and senators maneuvering for position in front of...
  • Living Politics: Message to GOP

    To win the war on terror, President Bush keeps saying, Americans must sacrifice. After his speech on Iraq, congressional Republicans probably know which Americans he's talking about: them! If current polling trends continue, the GOP could come under withering fire in next year's congressional elections. But they shouldn't expect Bush to yank the troops from Mesopotamia for his party's sake. His implicit advice to the GOP: Strap on the body armor, remind voters that jihadists are evil and label the Democrats appeasers who would rather call a lawyer or a shrink than call in air strikes.Every time I think the president has exhausted the possibilities of stark rhetoric, I am wrong: Like a preacher with Bible in hand, he keeps coming up with knew formulations of the struggle between good and evil. Strategically, we're in a giant global game of Texas Hold 'Em, and Bush, despite a hand that doesn't look that strong, keeps shoving more chips into the pot. Now the war in Iraq has been...
  • A DEMOCRATIC HOUSE DIVIDED

    Hillary Rodham Clinton is expert in the art of appearing publicly oblivious to family tensions. The skill came in handy last week at a Teamsters union fund-raiser in Washington for Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan. Earlier that day the Teamsters and four other unions had threatened to bolt the AFL-CIO and spark a civil war in the beleaguered labor movement--the grass-roots bulwark of the Democratic Party. But the funder had been planned long before, and Granholm is well liked. So officials from the opposing camps trouped to a top-floor terrace of the Teamsters headquarters, overlooking the Capitol, to listen to speeches, smile icy smiles and shoot dagger glances at each other. No one alluded to possible unpleasantness, especially the junior senator from New York. Framed by a phalanx of beefy union guys, Hillary all but cooed. "I feel so protected," she said.But even Senator Clinton can't ignore this: the House of Labor is divided against itself, and it's not...
  • Living Politics: McCain's Moment

    Here in your nation's capital, three parties roam the landscape these days: Dobson-Rove Republicans, Reid-Pelosi Democrats and McCain-Media Independents. At least for now, the McCain-Medias control the game. Going forward, the question isn't so much whether the leader of the MMs can win the presidency, but whether he will try to do so as an independent or a Republican. If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to win in '08, by the way, she'd better hope McCain chooses the MM route. It's her best chance.To an almost comical degree, John McCain is everywhere in Washington, a Batman without mask or cape, plummeting from rooftops into every situation. Sen. Dick Durbin is resisting apologizing for his errant Gitmo "Nazi" remarks? McCain chastises him on "Meet the Press" and, presto, Durbin issues a blubbering apologia on the Senate floor. Conversely, if you want to convene a commission to investigate allegations of prisoner abuse at Gitmo--the very same abuses that prompted Durbin's remarks-...
  • SCREAM 2: THE SEQUEL

    By the glamour-challenged standards of Washington, it was a big-box-office move. On short notice last Saturday, C-Span decided to cover--live--a normally snooze-inducing meeting of the Democratic National Committee. The big draw was the Beltway answer to Russell Crowe: DNC Chairman Howard Dean, whose phone-throwing attacks on Republicans have made him a star again. Earlier in the week at an "ethnic press round table" in San Francisco, Dean had branded the Republican Party "pretty much a white, Christian party"--as if that were some kind of a crime. Wise guys of both camps viewed the statement as a blunder, because, well, most Americans are white Christians. But at the rostrum of a downtown capital hotel, Dean defiantly declared that his characteristic feistiness had been good marketing for the party, drawing $100,000 in unsolicited donations from the Web in one day. "We are not going to lie down in front of the Republican machine anymore!" Dr. Dean shouted.So here is the Dean...
  • Living Politics: The T Word

    I was talking to Lebanese and Palestinian families here in Washington. We had never discussed politics before, let alone the war in Iraq. When the conversation turned that way, I expected a blast at George Bush and American hubris. I was wrong.As they spoke, the men fingering amber worry beads, they said that they, too, yearned for the advent of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. Democracy was possible, as the heady days of Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" had shown. Ridding the region of Saddam Hussein was a good thing.But here was the problem: not America's intentions, but America's competence."The Americans have managed things so badly, with such a lack of knowledge and preparation," said one man, "that people in the region are starting to wonder what your intentions really were to begin with."So it goes. As summer heat intensifies here, so do doubts about the war. New questions are being raised about the president's original justification--the "gathering danger" of Saddam's WMD...
  • Living Politics: Was It Worth It?

    I'm sitting here with a gloomy letter from Iraq, written by a high-ranking officer I cannot name in a branch of service I cannot name in a part of the country I cannot name. But trust me, because I trust him. Iraqis, he says, have no feel for or belief in the democracy we want to create, and our occupation is making them less, not more, capable of self-government."Our eventual departure," he worries, "will leave nothing but cosmetic structure here." "Every mission," he writes, "requires a conscious escape from the resignation that there is nothing here to win and every occasion to fail."Small miracles do happen--a child is saved, a generator is installed. There remain "possibilities." But sullen eyes along the roadsides give this officer "the feeling that we have stayed too long but can not leave."You can dismiss this as understandable but misleading musings of an officer who has seen too many men killed, and who doesn't see the "big picture." But what exactly IS the big picture?...