In late 2002, just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, author/activist Norman Solomon of Inverness Park was in Baghdad representing the Institute for Public Accuracy, a nonprofit he founded that advances the causes of progressive politics. “Congressman Nick Rahall and former Senator James Abourezk were in our delegation,” Solomon recalls, “and we were able to meet with Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister.” Days after the meeting, the Iraqi government announced that it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country for the first time in several years — a development that, for a brief time, held the potential for preventing the war that was to come.
Solomon saw the impact of having a headline maker of substance alongside him on a peace-seeking mission. And later that fall, when actor/activist Sean Penn’s open letter to President George W. Bush opposing an invasion of Iraq appeared in the Washington Post, Solomon saw a prospect. “I wrote Penn a letter,” says Solomon with a soft smile creeping across his face, “and days later he called asking if we could get together that very night.”
Their meeting, at first, unearthed big obstacles. Solomon told Penn that although he (Solomon) had the connections and experience to enter Iraq, it still would take weeks if not months to get visas and make other arrangements. “But Sean had a commitment to start filming 21 Grams very soon,” Solomon recalls. “If we didn’t move quickly, it would be too late.”
Within a couple of days, they were flying out of SFO. (Penn joined Solomon in coach for the entire journey.) The days in Baghdad were hectic and pressure-filled, with intense media coverage. A year later, in late 2003, Penn, an early and ardent opponent of the war, returned to assess how the American invasion had altered life in Iraq — a narrative that appeared exclusively in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Meanwhile, Solomon’s writings opposing war had appeared in numerous publications both before and after the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq. At age 14, he came under FBI scrutiny for picketing a segregated apartment complex near his home in suburban Maryland. And at age 19, he won his first journalism award. During college and later, Solomon was a peaceful activist against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, eventually spending a total of 40 days in jail for his civil disobedience. In the 1980s, he made eight trips to Moscow and at one point organized a sit-in at the U.S. Embassy there with the leader of an American veterans’ group, demanding the U.S. reciprocate a Soviet halt to nuclear bomb tests. In 2000, Solomon co-authored investigative reports scrutinizing the diplomatic record of Bush’s proposed secretary of state, Colin Powell.
Solomon’s books include The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media (1999); Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You (2003); War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (2005); and Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State (2007). In 1999, Solomon won the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, and in 2007 War Made Easy was made into a feature-length film, with him and Penn doing the narration. The writer and his wife, Cheryl Higgins, a West Marin nurse practitioner, live in a home they built in Inverness Park. Last month, Solomon announced his candidacy for Congress as representative for the 6th District — contingent on whether the incumbent, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), chooses to retire. Woolsey will declare her intentions this month.
Please describe your politics. Do you consider yourself a pacifist? My politics are perhaps best described as “Green New Deal.” I believe that government can be made to work for the benefit of the entire society. Access to quality education, adequate health care, consumer protection, civil liberties and environmental safeguards are not frills or mere privileges — they should be our birthrights as Americans. Likewise, regulatory agencies should be given the resources and power to really protect the natural environment, whether that means preventing oil spills in waterways or restricting greenhouse gases so we can reverse global warming. While I support a strong defense for genuine national security, I oppose what Martin Luther King Jr. aptly called “the madness of militarism,” which is unfortunately still with us today. During the last decade, taxpayers in Marin County sent to the IRS more than $1.6 billion that went directly to help pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — while our communities have been forced to deal with dire shortfalls of essential funding. It’s not “national security” to have our schools crumbling, homes foreclosed on and deficits skyrocketing. I believe that war is sometimes necessary — but the threshold for justification should be very high, and in the last few decades it hasn’t been reached. Instead, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, we’ve been dragged into one war after another on the basis of deception.
If Congresswoman Woolsey retires, the candidates to replace her will be talented and numerous. How will you get your message out? The first thing is to start early, and I have done that. My exploratory committee is already segueing into a campaign committee. In addition, I’ve learned that for a progressive there is no more powerful tool than one-to-one campaigning, and I’ll keep doing lots of that. I put it this way: There’s a lot of AstroTurf out there, with a glossy appearance. What we need is genuine grass roots — and the only way to get that message across is by going door-to-door. My campaign will do it. Already, over the past few years, I’ve given more than 150 talks in the North Bay, whether to activists, Rotary Clubs, business groups or Democratic Party organizations. I intend to do a lot more of that. In 2008, elected as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Marin and Sonoma counties, I got the highest number of votes. I have a good base to build on.
Who are your political heroes? A first is the late Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who in 1964 cast one of two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that led to the war in Vietnam. As a 16-year-old in 1968, I saw him at a Senate committee hearing where President Lyndon Johnson had sent an undersecretary to testify. When it was his turn to talk, Senator Morse succinctly spoke his heart. “Go back and tell the president,” he said, “that I don’t intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.” At the time, I didn’t think senators went out on a limb like that; I have never forgotten it. A current hero would be Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland who, three days after 9/11, stood before a packed House of Representatives and called for calmness and additional thought before giving President George W. Bush a blank check to wage an endless war on terrorism. She was under enormous pressure and later cast the sole vote against the president having such power. She should not have had to stand alone like that. God forbid it ever happens again, but if it does, I would aspire to act in a similar manner. My other heroes include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. They’ve left us a legacy of core values to fulfill.