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Report on the First Annual American Democracy Conference

Margaret Holt, Georgia-based D&D practitioner, covered last week’s First Annual American Democracy Conference in Atlanta for the Kettering Foundation’s Friday Letter. Click on the link below to read the full report.

I made it to Clayton State University just outside Atlanta in time to hear the plenary presentation at the First Annual American Democracy Project Conference-South by Elisabeth Bumiller, White House Correspondent for The
New York Times. (She told the audience that she is one of three White House Correspondents for the Times.) I have a hunch they scheduled the program to fall on Veteran’s Day. The New York Times was a primary sponsor. People introducing the program said that 13 states were represented and 19 institutions. Several groups of high school and middle school students from the area came in for this session as well.

American Democracy Project (ADP)
The American Democracy Project is a multi-campus initiative that seeks to create an intellectual and experiential understanding of civic engagement for undergraduates enrolled at institutions that are members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). The goal of the project is to produce graduates who understand and are committed to engaging in meaningful actions as citizens in a democracy. Currently, there are 199 AASCU members participating in the project.

Southern Consortium of the American Democracy Project (ADP-South)
The Southern Consortium of the American Democracy Project is a multi-state initiative of Southern American Association of State Colleges and Universities institutions. The goal of the consortium is to support and celebrate civic engagement on member campuses.

Bumiller started by saying that the title she was handed for her presentation was rather bland (The Foundation of American Democracy: Why Care?), so she instead said she would talk about covering President Bush in his second term and why we should pay attention to this. And especially to his efforts to spread democracy throughout the world. She had recently traveled with him (last week) to Argentina, Panama and Brazil. She wanted to talk about the protests in Argentina, the CIA leak and current troubles at the White House.

She told the audience that her job was hard, she has long hours, lots of pressure, lots of complaints from readers who feel they are biased in their reporting. She also said that September 10, 2001, was her first day on the job, and thus at the beginning of her White House reporting the Presidency was focused on war. On September 14th she was flown on Air Force One to observe Ground Zero. Now she said in the second term the focus has shifted to “mending fences.” She quoted Secretary of State Rice, “The time for diplomacy is now.” Next she said the priority of Bush has shifted to “spreading democracy”, and she said to ascertain this all you have to do is read the second inaugural speech where he stated that the spread of liberty is the calling of our time. She said he feels this to the bone, it is a vital interest for him connected to his deepest beliefs – we should promote democracy around the world. She said he believes that democratic nations are not rogue nations. His belief in
democracy is part of his presidential DNA, according to Bumiller. His evidence of this is the spreading of democracy as illuminated in the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then a pause, and she stated: “The question is: How much is the President responsible for elections and reforms in these places?” She did say there are some, like the King of Jordan, who give Bush credit for many of the changes. She said the Iraq elections in January and October were heavily pushed by the U.S. and this is interpreted by the White House as good news. The White House uses these democratic milestones to push for more. She also talked about elections in Afghanistan a year ago and last month. She said these were parliamentary elections with mixed results. One highlight she observed was that women won 68% of the seats. Then she moved to some remarks about Palestinian territory. She said it becomes a problem for the United States when regions of the world move toward elections that result in electing persons the U.S. is not pleased to have in office. She said this is one of the risks in the evolution of democracy. “The point is democracy is messy. There are many different kinds of democracy.”

She said in the 70s there was a trend for countries in Central America to move toward democracy. The President has kept up this drumbeat. Yet, there is turmoil and concern because many of these “democracies” haven’t delivered economic and social justice in Latin America. Shifts haven’t turned out the way people expected – thus we have leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Brazil’s President who offer serious protest to the U.S.

She mentioned that she has lived in Tokyo and in India, and she wanted to talk some about the President’s upcoming plans to visit India. She said he is very favorable to the Indian democracy (some of this, she added, may be to counter China’s emergence in world prominence). She said the President likes Indian democracy because largely it has worked. She did suggest that most people in the world don’t like to be lectured to about democracy.

Then she told a joke that might relate to the democracy project/push: A man jumps off the Empire State Building, and half way down remarks, “so far, so good.” As far as pushing democracy, we just don’t know yet!

She said the last three weeks at the White House have probably been the worst three weeks for this administration. They are in a kind of limbo now related to the cases of Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. It is as if they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Then she took questions which were a little more difficult to follow in my notes, but I’ll give you some sense of a few of the inquiries:

1) A participant remarked that most would say Watergate changed journalism. Did she see any comparison to this and what might happen in
this time period for journalism?

She said we don’t know yet how deep the scandal is. There is a huge amount we don’t know about the leak investigation. Reporters here are being used to make the case for prosecutors. That’s very interesting. (She also made some comments about Tim Russert and called him the Sunday morning Priest of the Washington Talk Show.)

2) Another person asked her if the President is in control of decisions or
are his officials controlling things?

She said she thought Bush was in charge. He calls the shots on the big stuff. He is not especially articulate (he even laughs about this himself). In the 2nd term he is showing less reliance on Cheney. The President, however, does delegate. He runs “crisp” meetings. He does listen to his advisors.

3) She was asked how she felt about democracy in our country. She said she had a sense from the 2004 election that people were intensely engaged. She said her view was optimistic – campaigns are very moving. People really care. The campaign was about important matters – war, peace,
social security, etc.

4) One participant said he was a Liberian student and wanted to know
about whether or not the U.S. would get involved in current elections where there were serious concerns about election problems. He asked if Bush was
contemplating a visit to Liberia to promote a fair election. She said she could not answer that question but it was unlikely, as we would typically not get involved in internal matters of another country.

5) Another participant wanted to know what would be happening to
counter the concerns about the non-existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. What would be the counter-arguments? She advised the audience to listen to a
speech he was making today in Pennsylvania. She said everyone was convinced early on of their existence. She suggested that the priorities for being in Iraq had to shift when they weren’t found. First the priority was moved to “we are going there to promote democracy.” And also we have to save people who are being oppressed.

6) She was asked about the response to Hurricane Katrina and she
repeated several times that the White House response was botched.

7) When some in the audience talked of us supporting regimes that
weren’t democratic, she explained that we sometimes support people for reasons that are not about democracy but are strategic.

8) (On behalf of Bob Daley, I asked her to comment on the Executive
Orderthat would keep private Presidential papers for long periods of time.) She said this was probably of greater concern to historians than to reporters. It did concern her, and she didn’t believe much could be done about it unless a new administration would chose to turn this around.

She ended her comments as time was running out by saying that the White House is hoping that Iraq gets better, violence abates and the troops can gradually be pulled out. But there is no sign of this in the near future. She was asked what it was like to be a reporter when you go into country where there is no, or limited, freedom of the press. She said she went in Argentina to a session that took five hours to arrange to attend, and then after Bush and the Argentine President made 20 minutes of remarks, they turned and left. The press corps was angry, and the explanation was that the Argentine President never responds to the press. She noted that India, on the other hand, is a big noisy democracy where there is lots of interaction with the press.

Amy Lang
Amy Lang is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. She wrote her dissertation on British Columbia’s groundbreaking Citizens’ Assembly process, and is currently doing follow-up research on the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly.

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