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It was hard to know who to be angrier at in the candid camera caper pulled off by a pair of right-wing video bandits last month in the Brooklyn offices of Acorn, the community organization now serving as the preferred Republican punching bag.
On the one hand, there was the relentless way that the activist duo stalked Acorn across the country, strutting into at least 10 of its offices, decked out in comic pimp and hooker garb, in search of the most gullible and vulnerable targets they could find. This kind of shtick is always cruel and offensive, whether it's Michael Moore aiming his camera at an aging and confused Charlton Heston, or Sacha Baron Cohen urging on drunken white frat boys to scream racist insults. The laughs generated by these pranks are always sour and mean.
On the other hand, the calm, unruffled manner of the Acorn employees as they counseled a self-declared procurer and his half-clad prostitute about how to hide their criminal wages stokes high outrage. It first makes you wonder what other nonsense these partly government-funded advisers may have been spouting. Then there's the inevitable follow-up: Who the hell is minding the store?
Which is why the Right knew it had struck pure gold when the tapes surfaced. Ever since Acorn helped register some 1.3 million voters for last year's elections, the organization—already high on the GOP watch list—was elevated to Target No. 1. Republicans blame Acorn's newly registered voters—most of them minorities who signed up as Democrats—for several congressional losses. They may even be the reason Barack Obama won a few states, a thought that gnaws nightly at Fox News producers and Limbaugh ditto heads.
Karl Rove was so keenly focused on this problem that he got his Justice Department henchmen to sack U.S. attorneys who balked at pressing vote-fraud charges against the group. Straight-shooting prosecutors—like former New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias—who said there were simply no criminal cases to be made, paid with their jobs.
The complicating factor on the other side of the aisle is that Acorn—despite decades of otherwise good work—has made itself a ripe target for these reactionary blasts. In the midst of last year's elections, as Republicans were leveling a steady barrage of bogus fraud claims against the group, the organization shot itself straight in the foot. Top Acorn executives, it was revealed, had long hidden a $1 million embezzlement by the brother of Acorn's co-founder from both their own board and foundation funders. The revelation sparked an ugly internal brawl, resulting in the defection of several members who found sympathetic ears in Republican congressmen and Fox TV's Glenn Beck.
"We are somewhere on the path of something very dark and sinister here," the talk-show host cooed delightedly back in May, months before the amateur sleuths began their cross-country camera tour of Acorn offices.
Those are some of the reasons why most Democrats beat a hasty retreat when Republicans, waving the embarrassing video tapes, introduced amendments last month barring federal funds for Acorn. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the move, by a count of 83 to 7. New York's senators split on the vote: Chuck Schumer—who held a fundraiser for Acorn in July—voted for the ban; newbie Kirsten Gillibrand quietly voted against it.
A couple of days later, Republicans pulled the same stunt in the House, attaching the Acorn ban to a college loan bill. Democrats had only a few minutes' warning, but the sentiment was the same as the Senate's: Why engage in a battle your opponents are craving to have?
This is a reasonable tactical response. Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner figured that they were simply dodging a harmful right-wing bullet. "I am not eager to get into that fight," he said last week. "I think this is one of those times when they are trying to distract us from what we are trying to do."
No question, that's the game plan. But as it happens, this is when being a constitutional scholar counts for a great deal. Jerry Nadler, the nine-term congressman from Manhattan's West Side, chairs the House subcommittee on the Constitution. Nadler is just north of five feet, but on these issues, he always stands tallest of all our legislators. Nadler immediately spotted the Senate measure as a "classic Bill of Attainder." If you don't know what this is, then you should look it up right now, because it is one of the few clear limits placed on what bills Congress can pass: no laws restricting religion, or freedom of speech or press—and none that punish a person or group without fair trial.
The greatest promoter of this right was Alexander Hamilton, the conservative icon who founded the New York Post, the newspaper now owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire includes Fox TV, which did the most to hype the videos and goad the GOP into action. The Post was once so proud of Hamilton that it carried his image on its front page banner. Here is how their hero put it in the Federalist Papers: "If the legislature may banish at discretion all those whom particular circumstances render obnoxious, without hearing or trial, no man can be safe."
Even back in the wicked McCarthy days, the Supreme Court quickly slapped down Congress when it sought to punish "subversives" without trial. A century earlier, the court did the same thing when states tried to bar former Confederate soldiers from public life.
Nadler understood this history lesson without even picking up a book. When the anti-Acorn bill surfaced in the House, he spread the word about its unconstitutionality. He tried and failed to get the floor that day, but he was back a week later after Republicans, eager to beat Democrats again with the same stick, inserted the Acorn bar into another funding bill.
"Last week, to the great shame of this House," Nadler said from the floor on September 25, "we passed a Bill of Attainder." Whatever infractions Acorn may be guilty of, Nadler said, "it ought to be vetted or sanctioned by the appropriate administrative agency or by the judiciary. But Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial." He cited a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Acorn's general counsel, Arthur Schwartz, pointing out that this was the first time in Congressional history that a group had been so singled out.
"I was just offended by the whole notion," Nadler told the Voice last week. "Congress is not supposed to be prosecutor, judge, and jury. It is fundamental. Any unpopular group can be killed."
As for Acorn itself, the employees who casually counseled deceit to their erstwhile clients may yet face criminal charges. And the organization's clearly sloppy operations will be scrutinized by an outside watchdog. But the video fiasco raises a bigger, underlying question about Acorn's entire mission: Why is a scrappy advocacy group even taking government money in the first place? Why leave yourself wide open to a right-wing jihad by taking funds from the politicians you help elect?
It's the kind of problem that Saul Alinsky, the great radical theorist whose ideas helped inspire Acorn's founders, foresaw back in the 1960s when the Great Society programs started showering big bucks on organizers. Those who chow down on government anti-poverty monies, Alinsky warned, were accepting "a prize piece of political pornography."