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Home / Articles / Archive / News & Columns /  Feature | Rocky Times: Rocky Anderson is still on the case. Barack Obama had better watch his back. Page all
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Feature | Rocky Times: Rocky Anderson is still on the case. Barack Obama had better watch his back. Page all

By Ted McDonough
Posted // February 3,2009 -

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Eighteen months ago, Rocky Anderson stood on the steps of Salt Lake’s City & County Building calling for the impeachment of the president. Protesters, some wearing rubber Dick Cheney masks, surrounded him, along with papier-mâché tableaus of Bush cabinet members chained together in black-and-white prison stripes. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, famously dismissed the protesters as "nutcakes." Conservative TV personality Bill O'Reilly later gave his own assessment of Salt Lake City's then-mayor: "kook."

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With George W. Bush in the White House and many Democrats afraid of invisible terrorists and their own shadows, the idea that Bush administration officials would ever be charged as war criminals did seem a little crazy. What a difference an election makes.

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src=/data/449BBE6E-021E-D69E-7A3370304BA7D31B/userData/Image/090205/coverstory/Conyers_library.jpgToday, calls like Anderson’s echo throughout Congress. Just one week into the Obama administration, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.—with whom Anderson has been meeting for the past year—filed a bill calling for a “truth commission” to examine alleged Bush administration abuses of war powers and civil liberties. The bill is backed by a 500-page report, “Reining in the Imperial Presidency,” based in part on judiciary committee hearings in which Anderson participated during the summer of 2008. A separate Judiciary Committee report recommends criminal probes. Conyers has already subpoenaed former Bush adviser Karl Rove to testify.

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Anderson, interviewed by City Weekly one year to the day after he left the mayor’s office, says it’s an example of what a committed citizenry can do. When he stepped down as mayor, Anderson didn’t join a law firm or become a lobbyist. Instead, he launched a nonprofit advocacy organization, High Road for Human Rights, which took, as its first task, forcing a probe of the Bush years.

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As Democrats everywhere prepared for Barack Obama to walk into the White House with talk of a new era of hope and looking to the future, Anderson’s organization was ramping up pressure on Congress not to forget the past. Those signed up as High Road members received regular e-mail updates urging them to send letters to the new president and Congress endorsing High Road’s seven-point plan for “an end to torture and restoration of the rule of law.” At City Weekly’s press deadline, the letter had 5,000 signatures.

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Anderson may not be mayor any more, but Rocky is still Rocky. And the new stage he’s invented for himself might just become Anderson’s lasting legacy.

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Today, High Road for Human Rights consists of Anderson and one full-time employee in a 200 South office donated by longtime Anderson friend and political ally David Ibarra. There’s also a Website (HighRoadForHumanRights.org), and a handful of High Road “chapters” just barely started up in Salt Lake County and Utah County, and pending in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Casper, Wyo., where Rocky pitched the idea at Dick Cheney’s high school.

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Rocky’s office looks much as it did when he was mayor. There is a pop-art painting of four John F. Kennedys and posters advertising protests Anderson headlined as mayor. An article headlined “Electricity Without Carbon” sits atop one of several neat piles on Anderson’s desk.

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Anderson doesn’t have employee benefits. His health insurance ends in June. Grants used to start High Road are running out. Anderson, who is supporting High Road with his speaking fees, says the organization is holding on by its fingernails. High Road currently has just 250 members who have pledged to help by writing members of Congress, screening slick High Road video presentations and penning letters to the editor.

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But Anderson—dressed casually in cords, a sweater and no collar—looks more relaxed than he did during his last days as mayor. He recently turned down a job offer and says he’s sure his new project will work. Everything he’s done before has led him to High Road, Anderson says. In January, he hired a full-time chapter coordinator to start new chapters across the country.

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“The ACLU had to start from somewhere,” he says.

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Let your leaders know
nThe mission of High Road at first glance is absurdly overreaching. Anderson wants to end genocide, international sex slavery and global warming. And, as if that weren’t enough, he tacked stopping torture and “restoring the rule of law” to the High Road mission statement as his work lobbying the House Judiciary Committee to hold the Bush administration accountable began taking up much of his time.

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But, in concept, the High Road is simple. Anderson says if he learned anything in politics, it was that politicians don’t do anything difficult unless pushed. The big problems, like global warming, are ignored, he says, because elected officials don’t hear about them from voters. High Road exists to provide the shock troops, “to make it clear there will be short-term political costs for those who continue to ignore these kinds of problems.”

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High Road’s pitch is, “You never again have to say you don’t know what you can do.” It promises that changing big policies really isn’t that hard. “Imagine if you had a group of just five people. Every time a congressperson or senator comes home and they hold a meeting, there is a group there pushing on the same issues,” Anderson says.

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The idea appealed to Utah Valley University senior Kindra Amott, who started Utah County’s High Road chapter in December after Anderson presented a video on genocide and human trafficking to her “peace and justice” club.

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“I think so many people feel so powerless,” says Amott. “To know there is something as simple as writing to a congressman or attending a meeting—to have an outlet, finally, where it’s, ‘Hey, let’s do something’—is cool.”

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The sex slavery issue was cemented onto Anderson’s personal agenda during a 2002 trip to New Delhi for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change. Anderson asked his guide to take him to the most notorious brothel street, then went in and interviewed the women and girls kept as slaves inside. Anderson says U.S. policy has talked a good game against sex slavery, yet simultaneously has granted waivers to oil rich countries. Climate change may seem an odd fit for High Road’s human-rights banner. But Anderson argues stopping global warming is about preventing the human-rights tragedies of mass migration and loss of traditional cultures.

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Michael Posner, president of New York City-based Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), says High Road is the first attempt at starting a grass-roots human-rights membership organization since Amnesty International. Human-rights lobbying organizations like his have lagged well behind the environmental movement in drumming up grass-roots support, he says, and “we’ve learned the hard way that policymakers and opinion leaders tend to set agendas by the broader public debate.”

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Anderson says it was a book that convinced him to forgo a third term as mayor in favor of becoming a full-time activist. In A Problem From Hell, about genocide in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, author Samantha Power (now a senior advisor to Obama) relates Clinton administration officials telling human-rights advocates that the U.S. government wouldn’t intervene unless advocates “made more noise.”

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“Since the phones in congressional offices weren’t ringing, President Clinton and Congress sat on their hands during two genocides,” says Anderson. “We keep expecting elected officials will do the right thing, and the fact is they never do unless they’re pushed.”

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The Evolution of Rocky
nsrc=/data/449BBE6E-021E-D69E-7A3370304BA7D31B/userData/Image/090205/coverstory/rocky_anderson_smileGre_AFB.jpg In 2007, Anderson’s second term as mayor was winding down and he remained popular enough to easily win a third city election. But even some of Anderson’s supporters began griping he was spending more time solving the world’s problems than fixing Salt Lake City potholes. With his crisscrossing the country to speak on global warming, some wondered if Anderson was running for czar of greenhouse gas in a coming Democratic administration.

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Utah filmmaker Rhea Gavry likens Anderson to Al Gore, as politicians who determined they could do more from the outside. She began rolling film of Anderson in 2007, thinking she was making a movie about the last year of a controversial mayor but says she kept filming because she saw her subject evolving into a full-time activist, “who decided politics wasn’t going to get it done.” Political and public-relations consultant Patrick Thronson, who served as Anderson’s last mayoral press aide, is also convinced the job Anderson was running for is the job he now has.

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“The reason he decided to become mayor was to address the issues he wasn’t able to address as a private citizen,” Thronson says. But eventually, even that platform wasn’t enough. “He came to see citizen involvement and activism as the missing link for crucial change.”

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Anderson himself says being a liberal mayor in the country’s then-most Republican state gave him a great stage. “The only problem was there’d be a rally, then a year would go by before somebody would hold another rally. These kinds of things need to be sustained. That’s how you make a difference.”

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Besides, if Anderson were ever seriously interested in politics beyond the mayor’s job, he would have toned down his rhetoric long ago. Even the most outrageous politician has to compromise, after all. Anderson still spares no one.

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Bush remains a favorite target, but Anderson also beats on Democrats. “When they were in the minority, they were holding mock hearings on impeachment; then they get in the majority, and all of a sudden, impeachment’s off the table and they don’t do anything,” he says. For Anderson, the U.S. Congress is a spineless jellyfish that “completely abdicated its constitutional responsibility” to check the Bush administration's power-grabs. The news media, a favorite target when he was mayor, are “betraying their role,” says Anderson, whose plans for High Road include pressuring newspapers as well as politicians. Not even President Barack Obama gets a pass. Meaty issues for a bulldog

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If he wasn’t looking beyond Salt Lake City in his last term as mayor, Anderson was already acting on the national stage. And many of his famous friends from those days now help make up impressive boards of directors and advisers for High Road that includes Yoko Ono, Harry Belafonte, Elie Wiesel and Anderson’s longtime hero, Daniel Ellsberg, who gained fame by leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and exposing the official lies of the Vietnam War.

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Michael Zimmerman, a former Utah Supreme Court justice and one of many local heavy-hitters Anderson recruited, says a seat on an Anderson-led advocacy organization was hard to pass up. “One way to look at supporting [High Road] is you’re hiring a guy who is a real bulldog to advocate and organize for issues you think are important but you don’t really know how to get a handle on,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit for Rocky.” Unlike some issues that come through a city mayor’s office, “the topics he has picked, like genocide and sexual slavery, are issues you can’t disagree with. They are incontrovertible evils. You don’t have to temper with them.”

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Anderson may have used famous friends to best effect with the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. In the last days of his term as Salt Lake City mayor, Anderson wrote a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers calling for an investigation of the Bush administration and shopped it around for signatures. The letter, beginning, “We are writing out of deep concern for our nation,” wasn’t nice, charging Congress with complicity through inaction in alleged Bush administration crimes. Anderson’s letter garnered signatures of George McGovern, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Harry Belafonte—and the attention of Conyers.

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Anderson was in Washington, D.C., for a climate-change conference when Conyers rang his cell phone asking for a meeting. Anderson brought along Ellsberg and several D.C.-area civil-rights leaders. At the meeting, they found the entire Judiciary Committee waiting for them as well as members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, all with copies of the Anderson letter. “It was amazing,” Anderson recalls. (The letter at RestoreTheRuleOfLaw.com now has several thousand signatures.)

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After several months passed, Anderson telephoned committee staff to ask why impeachment proceedings weren’t moving along. “They said, ‘What is it you want us to do?’” he recalls. Anderson—one of many progressives by then pressing for action—responded with nine, single-spaced pages of questions Congress hadn’t asked about the Bush administration’s activities. He pointed out, for example, that while administration officials had by then admitted tapping phone calls of U.S. residents, Congress had never asked for an accounting of the extent of the program. (A Bush administration whistleblower recently alleged the program included intercepting all domestic telephone and Internet traffic, as well as many conversations of U.S. journalists.)

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Such ignorance continues to this day, Anderson says. “We know the CIA has kidnapped innocent people and sent them off to torture chambers, but we don’t have any idea: Has it been 10? 100? 1,000? Isn’t that amazing?”

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That second Anderson letter led to a second meeting with the Judiciary Committee. Eventually Anderson and friends were asked to testify before a July 2008 hearing into abuses of presidential power.

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Democrats need a shove, too
nAnyone who thinks that the election of Barack Obama and a solid Democratic majority in Congress will take the edge off Anderson doesn’t know Rocky.

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Man With a Plan
n Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has a seven-point plan to repair the U.S. Constitution after the Bush years. High Road for Human Rights, Anderson’s nonprofit, is gathering signatures on the proposal before presenting it to Congress and the Obama administration.

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1. “STATE SECRETS” DOCTRINE. The courts tossed out nearly all lawsuits brought by war-on-terror suspects held in Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons after the Bush administration said letting the cases go to trial would reveal “state secrets.” High Road wants Congress to pass a law limiting the use of that doctrine. President Obama will have to decide where he stands on the issue soon. A San Francisco judge has rejected the state-secrets argument and is letting the lawsuit of one war-on-terror detainee go forward.

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2. VIOLATIONS AND TERMINATION OF TREATY OBLIGATIONS. Fighting the war on terror, Bush administration lawyers ruled the Geneva conventions and treaties the United States signed against torture didn’t apply to them. High Road wants new rules that dictate a clear process to be followed before the president, or Congress, breaks future treaty obligations.

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3. “SIGNING STATEMENTS.” After photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison hit the press, Congress passed a law forbidding official torture. President Bush signed it, then added a note that said the law didn’t apply to him. High Road wants Congress to pass a law limiting the effect of such presidential “signing statements.”

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4. ACCOUNTABILITY FOR VIOLATIONS OF THE LAW. High Road wants special prosecutors appointed to investigate Bush-era crimes, particularly in the areas of wiretapping phones, torture and so-called “extraordinary rendition” in which war-on-terror suspects were “kidnapped,” then flown overseas to secret CIA prisons outside the jurisdiction of U.S. laws. A recent report from the House Judiciary Committee asks Obama’s Justice Department for special prosecutors.

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5. CONSTITUTIONAL REQUIREMENT OF A CONGRESSIONAL DECLARATION OF WAR. High Road wants Congress to insist on an explicit declaration of war before the United States next attacks a foreign country, “except in cases of actual or imminent attack of the U.S. by that nation.”

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6. DISCLOSURE OF THE TRUTH AND PREVENTION OF FUTURE ABUSES. High Road is urging a probe of the Bush era, either by a nonpartisan “truth commission” or congressional committee similar to the Church and Ervin committees of the 1970s. Those committees investigated past presidential abuses of the FBI and CIA and led to laws against the government spying on Americans. Those anti-spying laws appear to have been set aside by the Bush administration. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., recently filed a bill calling for such a probe.

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7. REPEAL THE MILITARY COMMISSIONS ACT. In 2006, Congress passed a law that officially gave to the president many of the powers the Bush administration had already asserted for itself for the war on terror. The Military Commissions Act said the president wasn't bound by Geneva Convention limits on prisoner treatment, and gave immunity to U.S. employees for war crimes. The act also tried to make military trials of Guantanamo suspects square with the Constitution by saying foreigners named as “enemy combatants” by the president couldn’t ask U.S. courts to intervene in their cases and could be held indefinitely without charges. The Supreme Court rejected that part of the law, saying Guantanamo suspects must be given something like a fair trial. tttt

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“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Anderson says. “Whether the Democrats or Republicans control Congress, or whether there is a Republican or Democrat in the White House, it never matters. Both parties, the leaders in both parties, have been responsible for truly abysmal complacency in the place of major human-rights atrocities.

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“For those who think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be solved now because there is so much hope with the new president,’ we’re going to learn a very sad lesson again. We’ll be worlds ahead with the new administration and Congress, but we as citizens can’t fall back asleep at the switch. We need to keep pushing or we’re not going to see the kind of change people hope for.”

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If progressives want reasons to be suspicious of Obama, Anderson’s got plenty. He points to Obama’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, one of many Clinton retreads in the Obama administration who Anderson faults for “doing nothing” to stop genocide in Rwanda as Clinton's African affairs director. Anderson and like-minded progressives point to Obama’s support for Bush’s phone-tapping program during the presidential campaign or Obama’s initial pick for CIA chief and now Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. In the Bush administration CIA, Brennan publicly supported wiretapping, “enhanced interrogation” and the “rendition” of war-on-terror suspects to offshore prisons beyond the reach of American law.

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Many on the left hailed the first days of the Obama administration for the new president’s swift action making good on campaign promises to close Guantanamo, end CIA secret prisons and ban official torture. But Anderson, who was hoping for a shorter timetable on Guantanamo closing, says the injustice of holding innocent prisoners “simply continues” while the Obama review goes forward. “What I’d like to hear from President Obama—and what the world would like to hear—is a firm commitment to the obligations set forth in the Geneva conventions.”

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Obama also has stated his reluctance to begin an open-ended probe of the Bush years like that requested in the High Road letter. Anderson wants something like the 1975 Church Commission that examined abuses of the CIA and FBI and led to laws against government spying on Americans.

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Anderson insists it isn’t about sour grapes. Rather, he argues the Constitution has become Swiss cheese during the past eight years and must be stitched together or leave gaping holes for future abuse. Of Bush administration “perpetrators,” Anderson says, “If these people had robbed the gold buillon out of a government safe, would we just say, ‘Let bygones be bygones; forget the rule of law?’”

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As for the future, Anderson notes some of the worst presidential abuses of the U.S. intelligence community unearthed by the Church Commission occurred during Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic administration.

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“That doesn’t mean Barack Obama is a Lyndon Johnson, but there is no record of Barack Obama during four years in the U.S. Senate ever standing up against torture, against extraordinary rendition, or for a restoration of the rule of law," Anderson says, launching a long, heavily footnoted monologue and working up to the tone of a protest-rally preacher.

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“A Democracy is never safe if there’s not accountability for violations of the law and especially when those violations are committed by the most powerful.”

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // February 5,2009 at 05:30 Limp Fucking Noodle

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // February 5,2009 at 05:27 Hey John Mac - do you work with Anderson?nnSounds like it.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // February 5,2009 at 05:15 I agree with Tom K’s evaluation. Anderson is no builder. He doesn’t bring people together, except on one side of an adversarial situation.nnSo,if you notice a problem and don’t care to solve it, but instead want to fix the blame on someone else, call on the Andersons of the world. But if you want the problem fixed, call on the Mother Teresas or the churches of the world -- who, really, are everywhere.nnHis popularity among some folks (see some of the above comments) is due to the fact that many people have difficulty expressing their anger. Anderson, on the other hand, enjoys in-your-face criticism, whether he’s right or wrong, especially when the problems are somewhere else, like slavery in Asian and Africa, or when the problems are difficult to manage or resolve, like global warming.nnHe’s great at casting blame, but he falls short in resolving problems. This is made all the more clear by his defenders, who always have to exaggerate his work to make him sound good, like the above comments about open space at library square, or the successful 2002 Olympics (it was all Anderson; Mitt Romney and those other guys, including the thousands of Utahns who donated their time, had nothing to do with it).

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // February 5,2009 at 04:54 And what about all those orange flags at pedestrian crossings. Didn’t Anderson come up with that idea? All right, he didn’t come up with that idea. Other cities did and his people put it in place. But he’s the one who gave all the interviews. And it really caught on -- I’ve even seen them in Park City! So there.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // February 5,2009 at 04:27 The above comments have unfortunately veered away from the nub of the CW article - that Bush and his coterie may have violated several laws, and the Constitution itself, and that there is a small but dedicated group working to keep that fact from being forgotten or ignored.nI am not a citizen of SLC, so I have no axe to grind on the issue of whether Rocky was an effective Mayor. I do know that I felt tears of pride whenever Rocky came by in a parade or at a public affair; pride for his detemination to envision the right and to do what he could to effect it.nLet’s focus on what Rocky wants us to focus on - the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush debacle.nThanks.

 

 
 
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