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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- While the presidential primary process is far too fevered, front-loaded and reliant on fatcat financing for my tastes, I admit I've started paying closer attention -- especially to some of the debates.

You should, too. This questionable selection process is going to be over in the first two months of 2008, well before most American voters begin to think much about it. I have to admit, my first impressions surprise even me.

I'm beginning to admire Dennis Kucinich, the six-term Democratic congressman from Cleveland who 30 years ago was elected mayor of that fine city at age 31. He had been elected to Cleveland's city council at age 23. One reason I like him is his quiet sense of humor.

He recently told a big crowd at a Dartmouth College debate they could select as the next president a candidate who has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, consistently campaigned for single-payer universal health care, consistently defended against the growing encroachment of our civil liberties -- "Or you can have a president who is tall."

Kucinich is by far the shortest of any of the White House aspirants of either major party. I am 5-foot-7 and he's shorter than me. Maybe that's why I like him.

But he's big on bold ideas. One I like is his promise to withdraw U.S. participation in the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement -- both of which have mainly provided excuses for huge multi-national corporations we once thought American to, as the congressman puts it, "ship American jobs overseas, turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and hide behind their lobbyists in Washington."

All of this while the new robber barons -- using media cheerleaders and cheaply purchased politicians -- pimp their astounding self-enrichment and annihilation of the middle class as forward-thinking and patriotic "globalization" and enlightened "free trade" policy. (Last year, the chief executives of the famous Fortune 500 corporations averaged $10.8 million each in salary, 364 times the annual paycheck of the average American worker. And that doesn't even take into account their average -- average! -- $1.3 million in annual pension gains and $438,000 in freebie CEO benefits such as corporate jets and country clubs.)

Kucinich, of course, has little chance. But he's keeping the big-name candidates honest enough that their campaign gurus are already pushing Big Media to elbow him off the debate platform. They have been partially successful even at this early date. As "The Nation" magazine editorialized in its Oct. 22 issue:

"It is troubling that a former big-city mayor, veteran Congressman and one of the earliest and most consistent critics of a war opposed by the vast majority of Americans has already been excluded from some high-profile candidate forums. And it is unacceptable that political and media 'deciders' are beginning to angle for more exclusive debates."

"The Nation" editors continued to observe "There is nothing evenhanded about our presidential selection process. The system generally regards as most 'serious' those candidates who can raise the most money, while it excludes those who offer radical alternatives, even if they hold views that more accurately reflect those of the American people. ... Perhaps the congressman is too idealistic to match our strangled definitions of a nominee or a President."

Speaking of our misplaced emphasis on money-raising to indicate viable presidential candidacy, did you miss, as I did, the report by "Business Week" magazine that an extraordinary presidential primary of another kind has been continuing in recent weeks in an important venue that isn't even a state? Yep, you guessed it -- Wall Street. Big surprise, right?

According to the respected business journal, Wall Street bigwigs have been meeting with top presidential candidates from both parties "to measure the candidates' ability to make smart decisions in times of uncertainty, a trait bankers and traders prize in themselves."

These are closed-door sessions without any media present inside huge investment banks, finance houses, hedge funds and other powerful monetary institutions in Manhattan.

Bear Stearns, for instance, has already "summoned seven major candidates" from both parties, including Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama and Fred Thompson, to its midtown headquarters "for Q & A sessions with its managing partners."

One can only imagine the questions ... and the answers.

And the promises.

As "The Hightower Lowdown" -- one of my favorite political newsletters -- presciently asks, "Aren't these the same people who brought us Enron, NAFTA, offshoring, exorbitant credit card fees, oil dependency, pension collapses, and other 'smart decisions'? Indeed, isn't Bear Stearns itself butt-deep in the ongoing subprime mortgage disaster? Why should anyone listen to them?"

Yes, yes, I know -- it is extremely unreasonable to expect any viable candidate for president of the United States to compete without serious financial backing, including such support from portions of Wall Street. But there is something quietly alarming about learning many of the people we're considering elevating to the nation's chief executive position are sneaking off to the posh executive chambers of lower Manhattan to plead for money and at the same time make who-knows-what secret promises about how they will "make smart decisions in times of uncertainty" as "Business Week" so calmly puts it.

Aren't our "times of uncertainty" in this national era pretty much 24-7 and unlikely to depart from that description anytime soon? I can't help thinking the real underlying question for candidates down on Wall Street -- spoken or unspoken -- was "Will you do our bidding?" on issues that involve enrichment of the Already Rich.

Here's another thing I learned from the "Lowdown" -- published and edited by the liberal Texan populist Jim Hightower. Remember a few months back when I told you about the federal Department of Agriculture's moronic plans to make farmers and animal-raisers across the nation, no matter how small their operation, implant microchips in every living thing that eats and breathes on the spread and then report even small daily movements and animal events to the government?

The stated excuse is to make it easier for scientists and public health officials to track food-borne infestations such as mad cow disease and the like. The real reason is to put small farmers out of business -- either through frustration or by breaking them financially -- so the huge Agribiz corporations who financially influence federal officials can gain complete control of your food supply and its potential profits.

Well, it didn't take much skepticism to predict this boneheaded idea would extend eventually to human microchipping. In this case, "eventually" turned out to be a matter of months. According to Hightower and his newsletter, "A cabal of corporate and government officials is pushing to legalize and market microchip devices for implantation in humans." The firm that apparently makes most of these tiny radio-frequency identification chips is named VeriChip Corp., and it's trying to push the idea that if you had one implanted in your upper arm it would help hospital staffers activate and read a comprehensive medical database containing your complete medical history when you were delivered to an emergency room with a health problem -- or even if you just appeared for a scheduled session with your doctor.

VeriChip -- owned by Applied Digital Solutions -- thinks about 45 million Americans would readily use such a chip, officially termed a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID). Nothing in federal code would stop them. Back in Dubya's first term, his initial Secretary of Health and Human Services -- Tommy Thompson, who has presidential ambitions his own self -- approved without fanfare the use of RFIDs in humans. So far, so good, right?

Nope. Real bad.

First, several new research studies have found these chip implants can trigger malignant tumors in lab rats. Are you one of those scoffers who says there's no connection between medical mouse maladies and human malignancies, that such research is a waste of time and money? Fine, put one of these chips in your own arm and we'll see. Secondly, and just as disturbing, it turns out Thompson gets about $40,000 a year as a consultant for Applied Digital Solutions -- the parent company of VeriChip -- and, according to the "Lowdown," has received Applied Digital stock worth about $1 million. Gee whiz, do you think there's any connection?

Thompson once told interviewers he would "absolutely" be willing to have a VeriChip implanted in his own arm. According to Hightower, "he never did."

Call me a cynic, but you can't go wrong in this day and age predicting worst-case scenarios -- especially if they involve making some set of greedy bastards rich. I thereby predict it won't be long before the federal government -- no matter who is president or which party controls Congress -- makes it punishable by imprisonment not to have a tracking chip implanted in your arm, or butt, or some other fleshy place where it won't migrate into the bloodstream.

There will be scores of reasonings presented in addition to the lame one above: Prevention of ID theft, more efficient realization of benefits, anti-terrorism efforts, faster airport lines, better law enforcement, traffic safety, curtailed need for paperwork and licensing, etc.

Here's my reaction in advance.: Take your Radio Frequency Identification Chip and stick it where the sun doth not shine.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 23 2007