A Tale of Two Congresswomen

08/04/2010 07:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Maxine Waters, a champion of progressive politics, minority equal opportunity and peace politics (a member of the Triad, with Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, that bravely opposed Bush's war and occupation of Irag at the height of his power, against the wishes of Speaker Pelosi) is under investigation for violating House ethics. She purportedly sought to further her husband's personal interests by making a phone call that helped, among 100 other banks, OneUnitedBank, in which he held investments.

In a letter published Aug. 2, Congressmember Waters reiterates that she made one phone call to follow up a request by a trade organization - the National Bankers Association - to meet with then-Secretary Hank Paulson as the financial crisis was unfolding. For the bank association not to have tried to meet with Paulson if they could would have been a grievous lack of due diligence under the circumstances of looming financial disaster. In good times or in bad, such meetings are facilitated every day by our Representatives. It's part of their duty to weigh in with federal agencies on matters important to their constituents and their policy areas of influence. They act daily on behalf of business organizations - whether that appeals to you or not.

That Congresswoman Waters' call on behalf of a trade organization of bankers at a time of financial crisis should be attacked as a ploy for personal gain would be ridiculous had not the smears of Shirley Sherrod and ACORN been so fruitful. Congresswoman Waters has been effective in matters of affirmative action for all kinds of minorities. Such action has been and remains repugnant to some who feel it is unjustifiable and unfair, and diminishes their own opportunities.

To whom government lends aid - and who gets to decide or facilitate attention - is the basic political conversation ("To the victors belong the spoils"). It is useful to revisit often, but only with an honest attempt to determine intention and effect - good and bad. The accusation against Congressmember Waters is yet another example of ill intention on the part of people who cannot bear to see good effects for groups they feel do not deserve such consideration. Sometimes the reason for the feeling is racism; sometimes economic frustration; sometimes true injustice can be detected. But the resulting smear attack to effect regime change creates repressive government for all.

Meanwhile, another California congressmember's husband has benefited from his business acumen and wealth - the American way - and bought a major news outlet, Newsweek magazine. Sidney Harman (Mr. Jane Harman) paid a pittance (about a dollar, it is reported, because he is acquiring the magazine's debts and liabilities) and is generally regarded in the press reporting the buy as a super-rich elder selflessly saving an American institution, or a nonagenarian (that means ninety, not ageless) billionaire gambling (The American Way) to turn loss into profit once again.

There is not a whisper of how this buy might benefit his wife, the Congressmember, or the constituents she serves in her vast sphere of influence in foreign affairs after decades in Congress. Not a whisper of how it might affect her preferences in reporting, whether by pillow talk or implicit understanding: Jane never met a war she didn't like. And she was content to have Americans wiretapped without their consent, for security, until she was wiretapped secretly - then her reaction was outrage. It was a striking example of exceptionalism as the default psychology of those who believe power can be held by force.

Yet here is her spouse acquiring Newsweek magazine, a major American news outlet, and in no report can I find any allusion to the fact that Harman's position in government establishes, for her, a conflict of interest.

Harman was challenged by Marcy WInograd in the Democratic primary campaign. Winograd received some positive national news coverage. Would she have gotten it in news media owned by Mr. Harman?

The Silvio Berlusconi example - buy up the news media, run for office, stay in office - is so obvious it is a wonder American news outlets don't discuss it more often. Unless the reason is that the powerful here would like to reserve the right to generate that capacity for themselves and their friends.

Yes, Jane is old and her husband is old. She may retire soon, rendering these concerns supposedly moot. Whatever changes occur at Newsweek, who will notice if there is a shift in certain views or issues being promulgated or made absent? To whom would one complain - and would it matter?

"Helpless" is an ugly word. But when I compare, as a Californian constituent, the tale of these two Congresswomen from my state, it comes to mind. Why is Waters attacked for something remotely involving her husband while Harman, as her husband buys ownership of a major news outlet from which Americans receive information that shapes their world view, receives no questions at all?