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government | labor | no new sprawlmarts selection 2004

Kerry Won't Break with Wal-Mart Lobby

NEW YORK -- IF, LIKE ME, you spend a lot of time bashing politicians, there comes a moment when you have to ask yourself: Is there anyone holding public office whom I actually like?
Common Dreams
Published on Tuesday, July 13, 2004 by the Providence Journal (Rhode Island)


Among retired public servants who are still living, former senators and presidential contenders Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern remain at the top of my most-admired list. These two men I'm also fortunate to call friends.

But as for current office holders, I never hesitate when the question is put to me: Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, the sometimes mainstream, increasingly maverick Democrat of South Carolina.

Not that I agree with Hollings on everything. God knows, he disappointed me when he voted for Bush's carte-blanche Iraq "authorization," two years ago (he partly redeemed himself by voting against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the occupation). It's just that "old Fritz," as he sometimes refers to himself, always enriches his arguments with an intellectual commodity now almost extinct among the American political class: candor. And it's his candor that wins me over every time, no matter how he votes.

Sadly, Hollings is retiring at the end of this year, after 38 years in the Senate -- by my lights, too young at 82 (he's only the fourth-most senior member of the upper chamber) and still more vigorous than men half his age. So last month I went down to Washington to record a farewell interview, and, incidentally, to learn if he finds the body politic as corrupted as I do.

The senator did not let me down. George W. Bush has "made every mistake," he told me, warming to the subject in the drawling (unreproducible by a Northerner) accent of his native Charleston. "The economy's ruined. The foreign policy is ruined. The war is ruined. The environment is ruined. Education is ruined. Every damned thing . . . Even the Republicans are disillusioned with Bush."

I couldn't agree more, especially where the economic decline relates to "free trade," American-style. For more than four decades, Hollings has distinguished himself as the most eloquent voice against his own party's dedication to ruinous trade agreements such as NAFTA and China-trade "normalization." Long before parvenus like John Edwards and John Kerry began to note the floodtide of U.S. jobs to cheap-labor locales -- this after they'd supported the deals that opened the floodgates -- Hollings was championing the interests of the beleaguered American working class, forced to compete with dirt-poor Mexicans and Asians, who get paid peanuts and can't bargain for higher wages.

Hollings's interest in trade began as a parochial matter. When he was governor of South Carolina, in the late 1950s, he protested against the cheap-labor-produced, foreign-government-subsidized textile imports that were throwing people out of work in the mills of his home state. In 1960, already swimming against the tide, he asked Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, to take the import issue and the textile layoffs more seriously. Kennedy's non-reply reply, dated Aug. 30, set the standard for all future expressions of "concern" by the "party of labor" for the plight of its lower-middle-class factory-employed constituents.

"There seems to have been a basic unwillingness to meet the problem and deal constructively with it," Kennedy blandly acknowledged. "Since 1958, [textile] imports have exceeded exports by constantly increasing margins. There are now 400,000 less jobs in the industry than there were 10 years ago."

But did JFK do anything about it? Did he propose higher tariffs to rescue the textile workers of his home state, Massachusetts? Blaming the Eisenhower administration and passing the buck to more senior Democrats were easier: "I agree with the [Sen. John] Pastore [D.-R.I.] Committee that sweeping changes in our foreign-trade policies are not necessary."

And so things remained over the next 44 years of Democratic (and Republican) inaction on trade, albeit camouflaged by sympathetic-sounding language that could have been lifted from Kennedy's letter: "We are pledged in the Democratic Platform to combat sub-standard wages abroad through the development of international fair-labor standards. . . . I can assure you that the next Democratic Administration will regard this as a high priority objective." Blah, blah, blah -- just like the empty Clinton "side agreements" on labor and the environment, offered as sops to the AFL-CIO and other opponents of NAFTA.

Now that JFK II (Sen. John F. Kerry, of Massachusetts) has donned the mantle of compassionate indifference to industrial decline -- mouthing many of the same platitudes as JFK I -- it's easy to see why Hollings gets a bit worked up when asked about the presumptive Democratic nominee and his orthodox support of "free trade." Didn't Kerry see the crisis, not only in factory layoffs but also in downward pressure on U.S. wages from modern-day Chinese coolies employed in a rigged labor market run by so-called communists? So far, all we've heard is a timid pledge to "review" all existing trade agreements after the election; low-risk opposition to the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement; and a modest suggestion to repeal the tax deferral on U.S. corporate profits abroad.

"Kerry is in the hands of the Philistines," Hollings said. "He's in the hands of the pollsters, and these pollsters think they're running a campaign for the re-election to the Senate: 'I got a better this, and a better that,' and every other damn thing. The country's looking for a president; they're not looking for a senatorial candidate hollering, 'I'm going to fight for you!' I mean, . . . [Al] Gore acted like he was running for magistrate. Have you ever had a pollster that ever served in public office?"

But Hollings understands that what ails American political debate is more complicated than narrow-minded pollsters or timid candidates. Despite his increasingly successful counterattack against free-trade dogma, "ideology backed up by money" remains nearly as potent today as it was in 1960, when Governor Hollings testified before the old International Tariff Commission in a dumping case that wound up going against the U.S. textile industry.

Even then, foreign governments knew to hire the best, most expensive influence peddlers: "Tom Dewey [as in almost-President Thomas E. Dewey] ran me around the room" as lobbyist for the nascent Japan, Inc. As for Kennedy himself, well, Hollings saw firsthand how easily distracted the future president could be from the urgent matter of cheap imports when he lunched at Kennedy's townhouse on N Street: "He kept ducking down with that fixer from Chicago [Hyman Raskin] to get his picture taken with a contractor from Pennsylvania." In 1960, the combined employment of the U.S. textile and apparel industries was close to 2.2 million; as of today it is about 702,000.

Nowadays, with Wal-Mart and the other retail giants dictating so much of trade policy, Hollings finds himself fighting a new mantra, which has replaced the Cold War mantra that low U.S. tariffs and free trade were essential in the struggle against communism: " 'What about the consumers?' That's all I hear when I go down on the [Senate] floor. 'Cheaper is better.' We didn't organize this country for consumption; we organized this country for protection. I say: Where did we get all these consumers? You think, by gosh, we developed a middle class on a cheap shirt? Give me a break. I can tell you right now, the labor unions and the G.I. Bill built the middle class of America." Not to mention high tariffs, which Hollings reminds me began with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Rep. James Madison, pushing through Congress the first protectionist bill on July 4, 1789, with tariffs as high as 50 percent on some items.

Speaking for the typical American industrialist, Hollings says: " 'As long as the Chinese protect me from any kind of labor difficulty and guarantee me a profit, I'm going where I'm guaranteed a profit and no trouble.' What the hell, if MacArthur-Hollings wanted to start a nut shop, well, we wouldn't fiddle around with South Carolina or Washington, D.C. Hell, I know exactly where we can go: Beijing."

And the consequences if JFK II started talking sense like this? Hollings roars with laughter as he posits the imaginary headline the day after a Kerry break with the free-trade lobby: "Kerry withdraws from the race!" I laugh too, but nervously, since I know too well the combined power of ideology backed by money. The editorial pages of every major newspaper would rain down hell's fury on Kerry-Edwards, and a lot of the "anybody but Bush" money would instantly dry up. "Vile protectionist!," pundits would scream, from Thomas Friedman to Fred Hiatt to Michael Kinsley.

Without Fritz Hollings in the Senate, it will be all the more difficult to shout back.


John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of The Selling of "Free Trade" (University of California Press).

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