Laura Flanders Interview

BushwomenLaura Flanders, author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, talks about powerful females in the Bush administration.

Laura Flanders, a liberal writer and talk-show host, discussed Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species on March 18, 2004. She sat down for an interview prior to a public event at Book Passage.

The book traces the career trajectories of six women who have worked for President Bush. Each is highly intelligent and industrious. And they certainly have been loyal to the president.

But according to Flanders, the Bushwomen are complicit in a ploy to make the administration appear diverse and compassionate—that is, sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate. In practice, Flanders says, the Bushwomen are not doing much to help underprivileged women and minorities. Instead, they are pushing to secure greater gains for large corporations, for American hegemony, and for the image of the president himself.

We started by discussing the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who in the 1990s was the Provost at Stanford University…

Grant Howard: I noticed that when she was at Stanford she resisted any efforts to improve diversity. Where does that come from? Why would she resist that?

Laura Flanders: Well, you’d have to ask her, in terms of what her motivation is. But I think the record is pretty clear that she did play a role in actually rolling back affirmative action mandates at Stanford at a time when the university was under big pressure to diversify its student body and its faculty. Stanford was way down the list of colleges around the country when it came to integrating its student body and its faculty. When she left they were in a worse state, many would argue, than when she got there.

And I spoke to a lot of people at Stanford who said, you know, she came in at a time when the administration of the university wanted to make major budget cuts--and wanted to lay off some the most popular longstanding faculty members, including some of the earliest people of color to get into positions of power in the university. She was able to implement those cuts in a way that no white man, they said, would have been able to get away with. And she provoked less grief, in a sense, because, well, there was a reluctance to take her on.

GH: And I guess it was after that that she was on several corporate boards?

Flanders: Well, simultaneously. It was throughout the 1990s, she was on many corporate boards—most notably Chevron for 10 years. She was actually an additional member to the board; it expanded from 12 to 13 when she got there. And she was a member of the Social Policy Committee of the board, which was a very small committee of about six people that reviewed shareholder initiatives around human rights and social policy around the world.
And she played a very instrumental role as a member of that committee rejecting shareholder initiatives that were being brought forward during that period, calling on the corporation to review its relationship with dictatorships around the world, most notably the dictatorship of Sani Abacha in Nigeria, which stands accused today of slaughtering human rights activists and environmental activists who were calling on oil companies including Chevron to abide by international environmental and labor law.

GH: And also polluting the delta, right?

Flanders: And polluting the Niger Delta. I mean, the shareholders were bringing forward initiatives very concerned about the killing of Orgoni activists in the Niger Delta. And Condoleezza Rice was one of the those on the committee who in every instance rejected those shareholder initiatives and suggested that they should not be brought before the board, even for review.

GH: So do you see continuity, in terms of her actions now, as National Security Advisor?

Flanders: Well, the continuity is that she has expertise in the area of corporate relations. She has expertise when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. She was a sovietology expert. She brought her expertise to bear to the first Bush administration, to the second Bush administration, and certainly to Stanford, as somebody who knows business, who knows how to expand U.S. reach abroad, who has been on the ground while there was regime change—you might call it--in the former Soviet Union and again now in the Middle East.

What my complaint is, is not her opinions and her beliefs. She is entitled to them. It’s that they have received so little scrutiny, because I think there is a consistency there. And in many ways she is as much a part of the “oiligopoly” as Dick Cheney is. There should be the same questions raised about what motivates her decisions and her attitudes about the role U.S. power should play in the world as are raised when Dick Cheney speaks.

But because mostly the story we have been told about Condoleezza Rice is the story of growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, most of the American public does not see her as “oil man”. They see her as “civil rights paragon”. And I would simply suggest that while there is indeed that part of her history that is important in terms of her own experience, her expertise is not in the area of civil rights. Her expertise is in the area of expanding profits for U.S. business.

GH: And she seems to have broken off from all of her relatives. I mean, she is much more conservative than…

Flanders: Her cousin Connie…

GH: And her father?

Flanders: Well, she was very close with her father. And she and her father worked together on a school program for underserved youth in East Palo Alto. So there is that side of her history and her belief in helping individuals to advance. Where I think she differed from her father, from what I have been able to gather from what I have read from what he did in his life, is that he was one who really saw the need for structural change. And he talked about the legacy of segregation and white supremacy in this country. She has embraced more the conservative vision that help is only needed for individuals, that the society provides all the opportunity and possibility for individuals to succeed—if those individuals can simply grasp those possibilities.

So yes, she worked to try to provide mentoring and training for underserved East Palo Alto youth, using her position at Stanford to help set her father up in his program. But he asked the big questions in his lifetime. He was an assistant dean of arts and sciences at the University of Denver. And while he was there he started a program called “The Black Experience in America” that brought speakers to the predominantly white campus, to talk about the legacy of white supremacy and its continuing effects.

The speakers he brought were people who challenged the big picture and talked about it: Annie Lou Haymer, and Andrew Young, and Dennis Brutus the exiled South African poet. He brought Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. And Angela Davis’ lawyer. He was very clear that there is a big picture here of a whole series of generations of people having been held back by institutional discrimination and law.

GH: Systemic?

Flanders: She came up since then. And I think that she tends to downplay the systemic imbalances in U.S. society and biases therein and play up the individual-possibility side of the picture—which she certainly has lived.
But she says things like, “I should have gotten to where I am, because my family emphasized education and self-advancement.” I agree, she should have. The problem is, she grew up on the after-side of a whole series of laws that made it possible for her to advance.

Those who came before her were held back not by their failure to try, but by the laws of this country that denied them an open door. So that is where the cynicism comes in, in that I think she is now part of an administration that is rolling back the very laws and principles that helped her to advance--the principles of overcoming white supremacy and segregation in U.S. society, of affirmative action and social investment in a nation that moves ahead together. Not one that moves ahead only the powerful and leaves the less powerful behind.

GH: OK, I see what you mean. I want to move on to Karen Hughes…a different case. She sort of benefited from women’s rights.

Flanders: Yes, Karen Hughes I have a lot of respect for, I have to say. This is a serious, ambitious, smart, powerful woman who has risen to a position of power, at a period where the odds were good that a woman with her sort of drive could succeed. She says she was an “army brat”. That doesn’t quite conjure up the right picture.

She actually was the daughter of the last Governor-General of the U.S. Panama Canal Zone. He was the man who actually brought down the flag when the U.S. ceded power to the Panamanians. And she grew up essentially in a mansion for the years that they were there. Not quite the army brat that her words suggest.

She got into her first job at a television station in Dallas at what I think was probably the all-time best year for women in journalism, 1977. Women had just sued the networks for discrimination and failure to advance women through the industry. They were under a mandate from the federal government to implement affirmative action programs. Half of the women that you see in television today got their break back then—Lesley Stahl, Katie Couric, you name it. That was the year that Karen Hughes came looking for a job. She got one.

Later, I think she benefited from the fact that the Republican Party needed powerful women to go up against some of the powerful women on the Democratic side—most notably in the early 1990’s in Texas, after the election of Anne Richards, a hugely popular, garrulous, charismatic grandmother.

They needed a woman to be the face of their attacks on Richards. And at that very moment Karen Hughes was elevated to Executive Director of the Republican Committee there in the state of Texas. Many say, and I spoke to people on the ground there, who said she kind of weakened up the target, being Anne Richards, in advance of the 1994 governor’s race--so that when George W. came along, contesting the governorship, he was able to stay away from the personal attacks, which would not have played well for him, because she had already carried out years of attacks against Anne Richards. And some of them were pretty underhanded.

So she played a powerful role then. She continues to play a powerful role. And that was illustrated just recently when you had women and bereaved relatives of those who had lost their lives in the attacks of 9/11 heartsick and furious at the way images from Ground Zero were being manipulated by the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. It would have been hard for a lot of people to disparage those relatives and defend those ads; Karen Hughes was the one they sent out to do it. And she was probably best-suited for the job.

GH: The thing that strikes me from the book about Karen Hughes is that she has ironclad discipline.

Flanders: Yes, gotta give her credit

GH: So, when a candidate is running for office or for re-election he sticks to a message of the day but also just three or four themes.

Flanders: It is even more dramatic than that. I was shocked. I spoke to someone who worked on the Anne Richards campaign in ‘94. And he said, we sent our opposition research guys to videotape every speech that George Bush gave, so that we could see where he was good, where he was bad, where he was changing his arguments, where the weaknesses might lie. And he said, after three months we called the video crew home becauses George W. Bush gave the same speech—not just the same sentences, but the same sentences in the same order without alteration day after day after day after day.

GH: So, does that discipline come from the military upbringing, do you think?

Flanders: You know, that’s an interesting question, I hadn’t even thought of it. But I bet it does. But it is also smart politics. And she was working with Karl Rove, both of them super-smart.

I think, what we see in their PR campaign that drove the election is what we are seeing now in our national discourse. A very harsh drawing of the lines, between right and wrong and good and evil, and you’re with us or you’re against us. That was the attitude they took toward the press: Either you ask the easy questions, or if you ask the difficult questions you’re off the bus. You’re just simply not allowed, you’re at the back of the hall. Like Helen Thomas now is, the veteran White House correspondent, sent to the back of the White House press room because she asked questions that got under their skin.

That kind of discipline makes for very simple-minded politics. I think it’s great for your candidate. It’s very bad for democracy.

GH: So she is shrewd at managing the media, but there is an intimidation factor.

Flanders: Oh, you bet. I mean, talk to reporters who were on the Bush bus or on the Bush campaign trail ’99-2000, and they say absolutely, the discipline was very strong. The sense of intimidation was very palpable. And that was why George Bush the candidate could relax and act in a very chummy way toward reporters and get on their good side and engage them, because the lines were very carefully drawn. And anyone who might be troublesome wasn’t allowed in the room.

As I said, I think it works for the candidate, because the public is forced to decide, either/or. And depending on what information they have, or don’t have, they’re not required to ask more complicated questions and discuss an array of options. They’re told, for us or against us. And that’s a hard choice. Again, I think it’s good for the candidate, I think it is miserably bad for our democracy.

We’re facing very difficult challenges right now in this country. We need all of the shades of opinion and diversity of options that we can possibly consider. We don’t want to have our options limited to A or B, period, stop there, no more questions asked.

GH: I see. With Anne Veneman (Secretary of Agriculture), you write in the book how she was exposed very early to the issue that she is still grappling with--the business of agriculture versus the workers, or later the big multinational corporations versus the small family farms. And even now she has what you describe as a dream team in her department

Flanders: For her a dream team.

GH: Right, a like-minded group. I kept asking, what is her ambition? Is it just to increase profits for everybody else? Or does she have some other agenda? Is it just power? What do you think?

Flanders: Well, again, I’m not inside the minds of these people, but I certainly can say what I have watched her do. And to talk simply about what I see her advancing now, I see her advancing now a notion that the U.S. agricultural sector--the agribusiness corporations based in the U.S.--have a responsibility and a right to feed the world.

Now, phrased in one way, that can be an attractive prospect—you know, the U.S. can bring food to the world. You can look at it charitably. But talk to family farmers in this country, talk to family farmers abroad, and they say, the U.S. has no business feeding the world. Because the U.S. feeding the world, with its cheap grain subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, is putting local farmers and local agriculture in countries all around the world out of business.

They can’t compete: Jamaica, Ghana, Zimbabwe. You look at the situation, and you have farmers who own a few hectacres of land competing against Cargill, the biggest grain producer in the world, and one that has its supplies and its input subsidized by U.S. taxpayers to a point where it costs more to produce the bail of hay or the sack of grain than Cargill charges the consumer. That’s how they are able to undercut local producers. But it’s not fair because they are getting the help of U.S. taxpayer subsidies.