Howard Fineman

Stories by Howard Fineman

  • Potomac High

    You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student—from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less—who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?Presidential elections are high school writ large, of course, and that is especially true when, as now, much of the early nomination race is based in the U.S. Capitol. It is even more the case when the party in question, and here we are talking about the Democrats, is not sharply divided ideologically.They have a good chance in ’08 to oust the fading prep/jock/ROTC/Up With People alliance.The Capitol’s tile-floored, chandeliered corridors are clammy with adolescent posturing and intrigue.Hillary thought she had the thing wired through sheer hard work and a...
  • Sidestepping The 'Surge'

    Before Barack Obama was a senator, he opposed the war in Iraq. Now that he is one, he says that sending more troops would be "a mistake that compounds the president's original mistake." But don't expect Obama--or most other Dems--to try to block George W. Bush when he asks Congress in the coming weeks for another billion-dollar bundle for the war. The party won't deny the funds, and may not even try to attach conditions to them. Obama made that clear last week when I saw him in his office, a sunny space filled with portraits of Thurgood Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi and Muhammad Ali. "To anticipate your question," said the Harvard-trained lawyer, "is Congress going to be willing to exercise its control over the purse strings to affect White House policy? I am doubtful that that is something we are willing to do in the first year."Marriages of convenience are common in Washington. The war in Iraq is producing the opposite: a divorce of calculation. President Bush has no...
  • A Crisis of Confidence

    George W. Bush spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup. I first interviewed the guy in 1987 and began covering his political rise in 1993, and I have never seen him, in public or private, look less convincing, less sure of himself, less cocky. With his knitted brow and stricken features, he looked, well, scared. Not surprising since what he was doing in the White House library was announcing the escalation of an unpopular war.The president may well be right that we cannot afford to leave or lose in Iraq . He makes profound sense when he observes that a collapse of Iraq would mean the rise of a giant version of the Taliban's Afghanistan—with a million times the oil in the ground.But if he was trying to assure the country that he had confidence in his own plan to prevent that collapse, well, a picture is worth a thousand words. And the words themselves weren't that assuring either. Does anyone in America or Iraq , or anywhere else in the world for that matter,...
  • Mcconnell's Challenge

    With Congress back in session, I stopped by the sumptuous new Capitol offices of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentuckian who now has the job he yearned for—Republican Senate leader—but not under the circumstances he wanted—he leads the minority.One of McConnell’s first acts was to replace an oil painting of President Andrew Jackson (Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee had put it there) with one of Sen. Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” who dedicated his life, unsuccessfully in the end, to preventing the United States from being torn to pieces by the issue of slavery.McConnell is going to need Clay-like diplomatic qualities to keep the GOP together, but the result may still be the same: civil war. This time, the issue is Iraq and, more generally, the Bush Administration’s approach to the “war on terror.”As the president prepared to speak to the country on his latest plan for his unpopular and costly war, Republican members of Congress generally were looking for cover as fast as they...
  • The Bushes' Saddam Drama

    Evil was on the loose in the world, President George W. Bush had told the country, and on his first Thanksgiving in office--November 2001--he was on his way to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to dine with newly trained troops heading out to fight the (evil) Taliban in Afghanistan. In the conference room aboard Air Force One, we talked about evil. "Is Saddam evil?" I asked. Glancing across the table at his aides, he demurred. I asked again; again, a demurral. We went on to other topics. Several exchanges later, Bush interrupted an answer to blurt out a declaration: "By the way, Saddam is evil!"When the history is written, the saga of the Bushes and the Butcher of Baghdad will be a central thread of the family's story--and of America's at the millennium. It is not personal in the literal sense; neither President Bush ever met Saddam. True, intelligence sources (not all of them necessarily reliable) said Saddam tried to have Bush 41 killed in 1993. And in 2002, drumming up support for the...
  • The Coming War on the War

    Ever since the Twin Towers fell, President Bush has had an easy time getting money from Congress for his war on terror: At least $400 billion has been poured into Iraq and Afghanistan. But the spigot soon may tighten. As Democrats assume control for the first time in 12 years, they are planning to refer Bush's next "emergency supplemental request"—likely to arrive this month and total upward of $150 billion—to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.That would be a profoundly boring legislative detail except for this: the chairman of the subcommittee is none other than Rep. Jack Murtha. You may remember him. He's the beefy former Marine who declared in 2005 that the Iraq war had been a failure—and that we needed a rapid "redeployment." Murtha, say leadership aides who did not want to be named discussing his plans, is hiring a brace of government investigators specifically detailed to probe Iraq spending. The congressman will have subpeona power. "He'll make sure the questions...
  • Deval Patrick

    Boston is the ancestral home of Democratic Party politics. The denizens of Beacon Hill--where the statehouse sits, overlooking Boston Common--see themselves as the wisest of the wise guys. They concluded two years ago that Deval Patrick had no chance to be governor of Massachusetts. True, he had punched establishment tickets--Milton Academy, Harvard, Harvard Law, white-shoe law firms, the Clinton Justice Department. True, his name was as Irish as four-leaf clover. But: he had never run for elective office. He had no money. He had not gotten in line and paid his dues to the party. He had no organization. He was too liberal to win a general election: a supporter of gay marriage and tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Worse, he was not a Boston native, but an immigrant--from Chicago, of all places. One other thing: he was black.So much for the wise guys. In January, Patrick will be sworn in--only the second African-American since Reconstruction to lead any state. He will become a...
  • The Democrats' New Fault Lines

    George Miller was reared in the liberal Democratic Party of Northern California--not the fancy Nob Hill kind, but the fiery kind bred in the docks, shipyards and canneries of the East Bay. His father was state party chairman and taught his son to distrust Big Money and to "go to work like you're killing snakes." Elected to Congress in 1974 at the age of 29--in the wave of Democrats sent to Washington by Watergate and Vietnam--Miller is now the Man of the House: the closest ally of and adviser to the already-embattled speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. "It sounds corny," he told me, "but I was taught that you acquire power for one reason: to help the seriously disenfranchised."Ellen Tauscher was reared in business. Her dad was a grocer in New Jersey, and after college she went to Wall Street, where she became one of the first women with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1989, she migrated to an upscale East Bay suburb. Elected to Congress in 1996--in a district next...
  • How the West Is Being Won

    Jon Tester's farm isn't in the duded-up part of Montana, where hedge-fund managers go fly-fishing. It's in a north-central plain, where his Swedish ancestors settled in 1916. Until seven years ago, Tester's bio read: organic dryland farmer, custom butcher and music teacher. Then the power company was deregulated, prices skyrocketed, and he ran for the legislature as a Democrat. Last week he ousted Republican Conrad Burns from the U.S. Senate in a contest that cost $20 million--a number that would impress even a fly-fishing hedge-fund manager. "The West is growing," Tester told me. "It's where the action is."American politics has always been defined (or imprisoned) by Mason and Dixon, by regional rifts engendered by slavery, the Civil War and the Bible Belt. But now the relevant names are Lewis and Clark. The land west of the Mississippi, especially west of the 100th meridian, is the new swing region--and the place where Democrats hope to win the White House. "It's our 21st-century...
  • Her Own Worst Enemy

    The old mayor would not be pleased.Years ago I spent Election Day in San Francisco with Rep. Nancy Pelosi as she made her way around town. She was elegant, smart and popular, moving from restaurant to clubhouse to street corner in the Italian hilltop neighborhood of a city that is more like her native Baltimore than tourists realize. It seemed that her ambition, and perhaps her destiny, was to be a Democratic Boss in the manner of her late father, who had been Baltimore mayor.If Speaker-to-be Pelosi is going to succeed as Speaker of the House, she had better learn—fast—from the fiasco known as the Hoyer-Murtha Race. She violated every conceivable rule of Boss-like behavior: she lost, she lost publicly, she lost after issuing useless and unenforceable threats to people she barely had met, knowing (or having reason to know) that they would tell the world about her unsuccessful arm-twisting. And she lost big: by 149 to 86 votes.One of the first rules of politics is that power is the...
  • The Democrats' Engine Room

    No one accuses Eliot Spitzer of being a nice guy. His handshake is bone-crunching, his wide smile vaguely predatory. As attorney general of New York state, he terrorized Wall Street, collaring a pin-striped menagerie of inside traders, CEOs and other club-level ganefs . Campaigning for governor last week in the Hudson River Valley, he sounded more like a prosecutor than a happy-talking Democrat. In fact, Spitzer's hero is not FDR, but the other New York governor named Roosevelt: Teddy, a trust-busting Republican. To inspire the state, Spitzer vows to flush out the "ossified" systems of government in Albany; to spur the economy, he wants to trim taxes and lance a bloated health-care system. "There are going to be tough decisions," he told editors of the Middletown newspaper. "We're going to close hospitals. We have to brace for reality."Outside Washington, D.C., realism was selling well in this campaign season. Spitzer, dutifully working the booths of diners along the interstate, was...
  • The Boys Are Back in Town

    President George W. Bush's Iraq policy is now in the political equivalent of receivership—a bankrupt project that is about to be placed in the hands of the worldly-wise pragmatists who surrounded the president's own father. Think of them as receivers in bankruptcy, looking for ways to salvage America's military and moral assets after a post-September 11 adventure that voters (and most of the rest of the world) concluded was a waste of blood and treasure.Here's another analogy: the Shakespeare histories and tragedies in which battlefield mayhem ends with a restoration of order in the person of the Respected Nobles. In this case, these are the old royals from the Castle of Bush the First: a coterie of commercially minded globalists (as opposed to those ideologically minded globalists, the neocons) who have spent their lives as advisers and friends of former president George Herbert Walker Bush.The man who is about to be isolated in the White House is not the president, but Vice...
  • George Bush's Last Campaign

    Backed into a corner, George W. Bush gets louder and more deeply West Texas: a high-school football coach, down by 20 points at halftime, banging on the metal lockers for inspiration. He thinks that even a trace of presidential doubt will embolden Democrats at home and evildoers in Iraq. So here he was, at a not-oversubscribed Washington fund-raiser, launching the last drive of his last campaign with grim determination and warnings of apocalypse if Democrats take Congress. "They are the party of cut and run," he said. "Victory in Iraq is vital for the security of a generation of Americans who are coming up. And so we will stay in Iraq! We will fight in Iraq! And we will win in Iraq!"The Bush administration now administers two Green Zones, one in Baghdad and one in the White House. The question raised by both is the same: can the people inside deal with the people outside? In and around the Oval Office, I am told, there is little mention of--let alone game-planning for--the very real...
  • Bush = Truman?

    They are calling them “pre-mortems”—explanations in advance for what are expected to be Republican losses in the midterm elections next month. I heard a fascinating “pre-mortem” over dinner the other night from no less a personage than Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.It went roughly as follows: The Democrats are running against George Bush and the Iraq war. To the extent that they succeed, it will largely be because of the president’s low job-approval numbers—which are at rock bottom mostly because voters can’t see that he is leading us in a new and “different kind of war, an insurgent war” against Islamic fascists. The last president to lead us “for the first time in a different kind of war” was President Harry Truman. The war was the Korean War, which started in the summer of 1950, and which was going badly that fall. “People thought at the time that the Korean War was a failure,” Mehlman said. “Now we look back and see that it was an incredibly...
  • For the Faithful, A Trying Time

    In Florida, you drive North to reach the South. The "I-4 Corridor" is a Mason-Dixon Line in reverse. I crossed it the other day headed north out of bland, Disney-fied Orlando on a state road with four numerals--past the BBQ shack with palm trees in the dusty parking lot and the Brazilian "ground fighting" school, past orange groves and cow pastures, to the turnoff for the dog track. Across the street stood the Northland Church Distributed; "distributed" because it conducts services at myriad sites simultaneously via the Internet. It is the kind of fast-growing, interdenominational megachurch that is a key to Republican hopes of avoiding electoral disaster next month.There may not be much Good News in the pews for the GOP. The tawdry parable of Mark Foley is only one reason. Maturing from rebels to political insiders, evangelicals are divided on tactics and agendas, and beginning to doubt whether it is possible to ennoble society, let alone save souls, through Christian political...
  • The Devil Wears St. John

    The Rev. Jerry Falwell caused a stir when he made a comparison between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lucifer...
  • I'll Have the Virginia Ham on Pumpernickel with a Shmear of Mustard. And You Got a Pickle by Chance?

    Say this about Sen. George Allen: he's not a very convincing spin doctor. "I'm having a wonderful time learning about my heritage," he told me with a straight face this week as he prepared to address Dr. James Dobson's Family Research Council in Washington. "Wolf Blitzer told me all about the Lumbrosos. He gave me a whole document." Maybe Allen was excited, but he was able to contain his enthusiasm when he got to the stage to speak to a ballroom full of 1,500 evangelicals. He didn't say a word about his newfound Jewish roots. "I appreciate your prayers," he told them, though it wasn't clear what he thought they were praying for. Allen's friends and advisors fret privately that the candidate still hasn't come up with a consistent, believable response to his various crises--the "macaca" flap, his Jewish roots and his reported college racial comments. "One minute he's refusing to talk about anything,...
  • Speak of the Devil

    The devil had a hell of a week. Too bad John Milton can’t cover this campaign, which has turned into an epic battle worthy of "Paradise Lost."The war between the leading families of public life—the Bushes and the Clintons—divides and defines us. Who may be the devil and who may be the Lord depends on your political allegiance, but there is no middle ground, it seems, and, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve Somebody.”The devil made headlines in New York and Washington. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez followed President Bush to the U.N. podium in Manhattan, he said, “The devil came here yesterday ... In this very spot, it smells like sulfur still.” That brought gales of supportive laughter from the General Assembly, and (though they didn’t admit it openly) from Bush’s American political foes.A few days later, the Rev. Jerry Falwell graced the podium at a capital political conference of evangelical activists. “I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate,” he told the crowd,...
  • The Democratic Entourage

    It is getting late in the season, but John Yarmuth still wants in--into the club, the entourage. He is the Democratic candidate for Congress in Louisville, Ky., hoping to oust Republican incumbent Anne Northup. The club is the Democrats' Red to Blue Program. If you are a member--there will be about 40 of them--donations from strangers across the country will blow through your campaign mail slot like letters from Hogwarts. All you have to do is convince Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago that you are worthy and that you can win. But that is the hard part. Under Emanuel, the program runs like a cross between a Chicago political clubhouse and a movie studio with too many way-over-budget projects. "I made my case to him when he was down here a couple of weeks ago," Yarmuth says. A friend of Yarmuth's flew to Washington last week to make the pitch to an Emanuel deputy. "We've got a good chance," says Yarmuth.Most politicians hate to say no; Emanuel can't say it enough. He is a one-man pecking...
  • A Different Kind of Politics?

    On the campaign trail this fall, no one is a bigger draw—especially for young voters—than Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Of mixed racial and religious heritage, the 45-year-old Harvard Law School graduate strikes many Americans as a one-man answer to both the "clash of civilizations" and the Red-Blue chasm in America. Last week he spoke to a packed house at a MoveOn.org event hosted by Georgetown University students in regal Gaston Hall—a favorite venue for Democrats trying out ideas for presidential campaigns. In the green room afterward, Obama sat down with NEWSWEEK chief political correspondent Howard Fineman. Obama, who has been in the Senate for less than two years, did not slam the door on what would be a daring 2008 bid. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: Your grandfather was Muslim, but you are a Christian. What did you think of the pope’s original comments about Islam and how the reaction played out?Barack Obama: Well, I think that we live in a time where there are enormous religious...
  • Outside the Beltway

    OK, so the Dems didn’t quite start their revolution in San Diego. Their candidate railed against the corruption of Washington—logically enough, since the race was to replace the disgraced Randy (Duke) Cunningham. The Republicans were forced to pour in $5 million and hundreds of staffers to defend a House seat in a famously conservative district. The Democrats can take heart from the fact that the race was close. But they also should learn a lesson, which is that talking about Washington—even if you’re attacking the immorality of the place—isn’t the only strategy, or even the main one.For Democrats hoping to claw their way back to national power, this is the strategic paradox: to regain control of the political Establishment, they must forget about it.Democrats aren’t likely to find leaders and answers here in the capital, and can’t expect the traditional media to light the way. Instead, Democrats need to be a “states' rights” party in a new sense, shunning the sclerotic political...
  • Kenny Boy, Meet Brownie

    If you want a date to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush era in American life, you may as well make it this one: May 25, 2006. The Enron jury in Houston didn’t just put the wood to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The jurors took a chainsaw to the moral claims of the Texas-based corporate culture that had helped fuel the rise to power of President George W. Bush.First, caveats. There’s no evidence that the president or anyone in his entourage knew about or benefited financially from the house of cards that Lay and Skilling built—and that a federal jury now has found to have been an edifice of fraud.The Bush Crowd was old school in the energy bidness and viewed Lay & Co. as hustling parvenus who had no real interest in finding and pumping oil—what real men in Texas do.Most of what Enron concocted was assembled in the go-go Clinton years. Bush’s idea of an oilman was his old Bible-study buddy, the upright, clean-as-a-whistle Don Evans. As the Enron scam was falling apart, Lay...
  • Selfless Oracle?

    In Washington the other day, I got a chance to tell Al Gore something I’d meant to say for a long time, which was that I thought his real strength, his real contribution, was as an observer—writer, explainer, outsider—and not as a politician.The new movie about him was evidence of that, I said. He gave me a blank, dismissive look, and an “umm” for a verbal response.I’ve known and covered Gore for decades, so maybe his reaction was inspired by Groucho Marx, who always said that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. But I think the brusque reply carried a different message: don’t assume that I’m ready to be put out to that pasture just yet.Gore has a certain aura of nobility about him these days—a mixture of rue, acceptance and lofty goals that makes him almost, well, endearing. As I talked to him at the East Coast premiere of the documentary film about him (“An Inconvenient Truth”), I wondered whether his newfound sense of peace and purpose meant that he had...
  • American Idols and American Leaders

    In America these days, we are obsessed with idols, but have no leaders. We are mesmerized by every round of “American Idol,” but despair of finding authority figures in public life we can trust to run the country.For a brief moment after the attacks of 9/11, voters suspended their disbelief about the ability of leaders to handle their jobs. People wanted the president to succeed: he was the only president we had in a moment of profound crisis. Public attitudes toward the Congress, toward business leaders, toward cultural institutions—all soared on the strength of patriotic unity.That moment has long since evaporated. Voters have lost faith in President Bush, in Congress as now constituted, in leaders of all kinds.The next election cycle—the midterm season now under way and the presidential campaign soon to follow—will be about one thing: leadership. Not just identifying who leaders are, but restoring the very idea that leadership is possible.The buzzword in Washington now is “sour.”...
  • Rove's Revamp

    This fall’s election season is going to make the past three look like episodes of “Barney.”The conventional notion here is that Democrats want to “nationalize” the 2006 elections—dwelling on broad themes (that is, the failures of the Bush administration)—while the Republicans will try to “localize” them as individual contests that have nothing to do with, ahem, the goings-on in the capital.That was before the GOP situation got so desperate. The way I read the recent moves of Karl Rove & Co., they are preparing to wage war the only way open to them: not by touting George Bush, Lord knows, but by waging a national campaign to paint a nightmarish picture of what a Democratic Congress would look like, and to portray that possibility, in turn, as prelude to the even more nightmarish scenario: the return of a Democrat (Hillary) to the White House.Rather than defend Bush, Rove will seek to rally the Republicans’ conservative grass roots by painting Democrats as the party of tax...
  • Clipping Rove's Wings

    As expected, Scott McClellan is quitting his job as the human pinata of the press room. Not so expected is new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten's decision to clip the wings of George Bush's political alter-ego of 33 years, Karl Rove.In the snakepit of the White House—any White House—power is a zero sum game. Bolten has demonstrated his clout by taking some away from the Empire of Rove. Forget trying to play policy expert, Bolten told Rove. Go back to focusing on what you do best: building and running a Republican election machine. And, by the way, if the Republicans lose the Congress in 2006, it's gonna be your fault, Karl—not the president's. By ripping a star from Rove's epaulet—the first time Rove has ever lost, rather than acquired, power in the Bush circle—Bolten showed that he can be effective, that he can influence events. I'm not sure the same can be said any longer of his boss. “The Decider,” a.k.a. President George W. Bush, thinks of himself as a can-do guy. He likes to hammer...
  • Circling the Wagons

    There are some reporters here who seem to think (or at least they have written) that George W. Bush has “shaken up” his administration by replacing chief of staff Andy Card with OMB Director Joshua B. Bolten. It’s true that Card was burned out and that Bolten had little or nothing to do with a series of administrative disasters (Miers, Katrina, Dubai Ports) that occurred on Card’s watch. But this isn’t a “shake-up,” at least not so far. It’s the opposite: a circling of the wagons. Or, in Texas-speak, it’s Bush insisting on his deeply held belief in “dancing with the ones that brung ya.”Bolten is one of the ones that brung him. He was part of the Bush inner circle in Austin well before the future president ever thought of hiring Card—who Bush liked, to be sure, but who he regarded as a Washington hand whose main job was to keep the paper flowing and (in Paul O’Neill’s famous account) the cheeseburgers arriving.The truly astonishing thing about the Bush Way is how little the real...