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Jewish World Review March 22, 2006/ 22 Adar, 5766

Nat Hentoff

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A lifeline for Dems? | Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a frequent visitor in our home through his radio "fireside chats." We also paid attention to his State of the Union addresses — particularly in 1944, with World War II under way. I was reminded of that one by professor Cass Sunstein's current book, "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever". With the disorganized Democrats looking hard for a clear issue to present to voters during the midterm elections and beyond, they might find a lifeline from FDR.

In that State of the Union speech, Roosevelt said: "Essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want."

FDR then specified what he called "a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis for security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race or creed."

Included were a right to "a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and from domination by monopolies at home or abroad."

Also — as illusory as these rights sound to a good many Americans these days — "the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; and the right to a good education."

For me, that's an appealing agenda because I was one of millions of Americans who had grown up in the Great Depression (I never figured out why it was called that), when my mother would literally walk blocks to save a few cents on food. And my father, a traveling salesman, would sometimes bring home only a few dollars a week. As a kid, while I was listening to one of my favorite radio shows, "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," the collection-agency man came and took the radio away.

The Second Bill of Rights strongly resonated with my family, which is why my parents always voted for FDR. But that was another time; and today's Democrats would have a very hard sell promoting all the elements of FDR's economic bill of rights. But the Democrats might invoke the spirit of FDR's message by showing how much of it has been adopted in the new Iraqi constitution, as reported by Gilbert Cranberg in the March 8 USA Today. (To read the entire constitution, Google: Iraq constitution.)


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Cranberg is a former editor of the opinion pages of The Des Moines Register, and he influenced many journalists, including me, with his historically grounded editorials and writings on the First Amendment. He also became an influential journalism professor at the University of Iowa.

In his report, "Lessons for U.S. in Iraqi Constitution," Cranberg quoted: "A right to 'work ... for all Iraqis in a way that guarantees a dignified life for them.' Government guarantees of 'special and health security [that] shall secure [for individuals and families suitable income and appropriate housing.'"

Moreover, the Iraqi constitution continues, "Low-income earners shall be exempt from taxes in a way that guarantees the preservation of the minimum income required for living ... Free education in all its stages is a right for Iraqis ... (and) every individual has the right to live in safe environment conditions."

In view of the current intense debates in this country about warrantless eavesdropping on Americans by the National Security Agency and the continued use of FBI national-security letters to gather personal information without judicial review in the newly signed compromise version of the Patriot Act, I am impressed by this section of the Iraqi constitution:

"(Communication) may not be monitored, wiretapped or disclosed except for legal and security necessity and (most importantly) by a judicial decision." And Iraq doesn't even have our Fourth Amendment.

In his report, Cranberg emphasizes, the founding Iraqi document specifies "that 'all forms of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment are prohibited' — with no ifs, ands or buts."

Cranberg told me, "Bush touts the Iraqi constitution, but does he even know what's in it?" If Iraqis actually implement their constitution, one of the ways it would resonate here, he says, is that "the tens of millions of Americans without (health) coverage who have to scrounge for care in emergency rooms could well wonder if their government could be the catalyst for the right to health care for Iraqis, why not also for its own people?"

By the way, under the Iraqi constitution, their president heads the military only for "ceremonial and honorary commemoration purposes" — by contrast with George W. Bush's insistence that, as commander in chief, he has the power to override international treaties and our own laws, despite what our Constitution says.

If Iraqis can agree on forming a government to go with their constitution, they will indeed have lessons for us. Meanwhile, Democrats should take note.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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