Monday, November 30, 2009

Winston's Birthday

The Boneless Wonder... Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on this day in 1874. The world has not been the same since. In any one of a half dozen fields - the military, literature, history, painting, lecturing, acting (?) - Churchill could have become an international celebrity, acknowledged for his remarkable talents. Thank goodness he chose politics. For two years running now, I have had the genuine pleasure of attending the annual Chartwell Society dinner at the elegant Arlington Club in downtown Portland, Oregon. The dinner has been organized for 17 years by a group of Oregon Churchillians who gather to remember the great man's life and legacy. Of course, true to Churchill's memory, they also enjoy cocktails - or Winston's favorite Pol Roger champagne - good roast beef and fine French wine. The whole affair is conducted amid much talk of the man who gave Britain her roar during the awful days of World War II. Unfortunately, recent changes in Oregon law prevented the standard after dinner cigar at the recent Chartwell Society gala. Winston would not have approved. Generally, he favored a Romeo y Julietta; Cuban, of course and in the size he made famous. One of his cigars, reportedly partially consumed at the Casablanca conference in 1943, was recently valued at 800 pounds. I had the honor of delivering one of the toasts during the Chartwell Society dinner, a toast to Churchill's wartime friend Franklin Roosevelt. I believe theirs was the most consequential friendship of the 20th Century. The Chartwell dinner gets me thinking about the remarkable accomplishments of Churchill and, in fairness, also his rather remarkable failures. Decidedly on the plus side of his legacy is the fact that he provided the vocabulary and the courage needed for Britain to hang on against the Germans in 1940 and 1941 while the United States remained a largely isolationist nation. He forged a great alliance with Roosevelt that still resonates with us today. Churchill is also remembered for engineering the disastrous British expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 that ultimately forced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston was a man of action and ideas. Some of his actions and ideas were great, many others were not. Still, perhaps the greatest lesson of Churchill's long and fascinating life was his determination to always carry on. He famously said: "When you are going through Hell, keep on going." He did. When Churchill returned to lead the British Navy in 1939 - remember he had been forced to resign from the same post 24 years earlier - he was, at age 65, widely considered the right man at the right time, in fact the only man for the job. He went to his old office in the Admiralty Building and found the same charts and maps that he had left there nearly a quarter century before. To mark his return, a signal was flashed to the fleet - "Winston's back!" Who says there are no second acts in political life? Churchill had a second, third and fourth life. He always kept on going. Churchill will be long remembered for his remarkable ability to inspire with the written and spoken word. He was an elegant, earthy, inspirational, funny and profound speaker, and, take note today's politicos, his remarkable way with words - something he worked very hard to master - was a talent that contributed directly to his political success. One of my favorite stories involves Churchill's critique of Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, a dour Scotsman who Winston believed was a weak leader. During a parliamentary debate he painted an unforgettable word portrait of MacDonald, who was seated across the floor in the House of Commons: "I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as 'The Boneless Wonder.' My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eyes and I have waited fifty years to see The Boneless Wonder siting on the Treasury Bench." You can almost hear the laughter, see the nodding heads and know that the victim of the wit and cutting put down had no possible recourse. What does one say to being called The Boneless Wonder? One of the greatest resources for all things Churchill is the Churchill Centre which sponsors an annual conference in the United States and vigorously defends the old boy's reputation. The scholarly analysis of Churchill's role in two world wars and the post-war world of the 1950's and 1960's continues unabated. My guess is that he will be written about as long as the history of the English speaking people is recorded. Like all great men - and women - Winston Churchill was far from perfect. He was however a remarkable leader at the very moment the world needed him the most. We should remember his birthday every year.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering Ed Stimpson - Update

A Class Act, A True Citizen At a time when coarseness and disrespect seems to be the norm in our civic and political dialogue, Ed Stimpson was from an older and better school. He was a gentlemen first and an involved citizen always. Ed died on Wednesday after a tough, courageous battle with lung cancer. The unfairness of his death at 75 made all the more hard to take by the fact that the lanky aviation expert was never a smoker. Life treats the good guys just as roughly as the rest of us. [After posting this Friday, I came across a fine tribute to Ed from an old friend in Washington State.] The Associated Press described Ed as an "aviation advocate" and he was that for certain. He was the first president of the General Aviation Manufactures Association and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, with the rank of ambassador, to represent the United States on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group, based in Montreal, makes the rules for aviation world-wide. George W. Bush kept Ed on in the position and he served until 2004. He was recognized internationally for his leadership and he and his equally civic-minded partner, Dorothy, made quite the pair. It is hard to imagine another couple so engaged and so willing to play a role in making their town, their state and their world a better place. Stimpson received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1998 for his public service contributions to aviation, an honor he shared with Charles A. Lindbergh, World War II pilot Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Fast company. To know Ed was to understand how at home he was in such company. The National Business Aviation Associated called him an industry icon. Aviation Week said the "tall, quiet, elegant and effective" Stimpson was one of the industry's most respected voices in Washington, D.C. I first met Ed and Dottie Stimpson 20 years ago when they arrived in Boise - Ed was working for the old Morrison-Knudsen Corp. - and together they immediately became involved leaders in civic and political life. Dottie almost singlehandlely created the thriving City Club of Boise and the couple has been recognized for their many contributions to a civil society and for creating opportunities for young people. Countless political candidates and even a budding environmental writer, then-Senator Al Gore, benefited from the elegant receptions held over the years in the Stimpson home. My wife, Pat, and I also benefited on several occasions from Ed's ability to grill a mean lamb chop, keep the glasses full and the conversation rolling. No visit with Ed and Dottie was ever complete without updates on the latest books, the next trip or the most recent campaign. Like everyone who knew him, I'll miss Ed for many, many reasons. We should all hope to leave such a legacy: gentleman, elegant, effective, a completely decent man who made a real difference. Yeats' famous quote seems particularly appropriate: “Think where man’s glory begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends…” Ed Stimpson was simply one of the good guys.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The First Thanksgiving

President Lincoln's Proclamation Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln's proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise "to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Seward's prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln's, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America. The full Lincoln proclamation is here. A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good News for Thanksgiving

Leave it to the Basques... Been wondering if there is any good news in the world? Wonder no more. Just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner comes new evidence - from the Basque region of Spain - that alcohol, wine, beer, whatever, in moderate daily amounts is good for the heart. As the Independent reported: "The results showed that those who drank a little – a glass of wine or a bottle of beer every other day – had a 35 per cent lower risk of a heart attack than those who never drank. Moderate drinkers, consuming up to a couple of glasses of wine a day or a couple of pints of ordinary bitter, had a 54 per cent lower risk." As anyone knows who has traveled in the Basque region straddling the Spanish and French border along the Pyrenees, the Basques are great cooks and informed imbibers. The hospitality is legendary. British scientists, of course, discounted the study, but what do they know. A glass of good red wine and a few tasty tapas in a bar in San Sebastian or Bilbao may just be one of the most civilized and stress reducing activities I can think of. Talk about good for the heart. Toast the Basques. They know how to live. I personally think the study is brilliant. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dithering on War

When Politicians Overrule Their Generals News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks. The debate over Obama's deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president's critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for "dithering" over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the "generals on the ground." These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war. Obama's critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops - and should - at the president's desk. Sometimes presidents have even said "no" to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way. George C. Marshall (left), one of the country's greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt's chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian. FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times - Dunkirk, Norway and Greece - resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943. Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the "only way in which we could possibly lose this war." The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa. Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt "dithered" over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued "we've got to go to Europe and fight." As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book "An Army at Dawn," FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa. As Atkinson has written: "The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen." British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book "Masters and Commanders," that all of FDR's top advisors "Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall's chief deputy General Thomas] Handy...preferred the 'Ulysses S. Grant' view" that fighting the Nazis "should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible." FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill's and the British high command's "soft underbelly of Europe" strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster. Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers. Other presidents have done the same. During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general's insubordination in questioning Truman's strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory. John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war. Perhaps our greatest president - and greatest military strategist in the White House - Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan. When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan's strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes. Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict. Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: "I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw." Obama's decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush's decision to go into Iraq or LBJ's into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must - as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren't always right. As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don't remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson's presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia. Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Choice

The Greatest Poet... For me the answer is easy - W.B. Yeats. In December 1923, nearly 86 years ago, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature and made much of the fact that the recognition came shortly after Ireland had gained independence. His recognition, Yeats contended, was an acknowledgement of the quality of Irish literature. Perhaps, but Yeats was an immense talent. In fact, his greatest work - lyrical, beautiful poetry - came after he received the big prize that had been awarded largely for his work as a playwright. One of my favorites poems is called The Choice: The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. When all that story's finished, what's the news? In luck or out the toil has left its mark: That old perplexity an empty purse, Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

I also like Yeats because he was a man of the world, indeed he served in the Irish Senate where he became a major voice celebrating Irish culture.

Pour a little Irish whiskey on a cold November night and open Yeats' collected works. You'll find some magic.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Like Father and Son

Big Weekend for Baucus and Messina The Washington Post has a great piece today on Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and his former top aide Jim Messina. Messina (left), a former Idahoan, is now White House Deputy Chief of Staff. The piece is worth a read for several reasons, not least because it illustrates a fundamental rule of politics: personal relationships really matter. As the Senate, home of arcane rules and bound by tradition and history, inches toward critical votes on health care legislation, its worth remembering that the place is often all about "the inside game" conducted out of the glare of C-SPAN cameras. Critics often demean the relationship side of politics and, of course, that kind of influence can be abused. Still in the best sense - in the human sense - being an insider simply means one has accumulated a lifetime of trust and confidence with lots of people. Politics, and particularly the rough and tumble of a political campaign, breeds a rare kind of relationship that is hard to describe, but impossible to diminish. Most people I know in politics cherish these personal relationships more than they do any sense of power or impact that might flow from them. In simple terms, the world - and politics - operates on the basis of personal relationships. Or put another way, in politics and life you come to trust people who over a long period of time have proven to be honest, loyal, hard workers who care about the same things you care about. The Baucus - Messina bond is one of the more important relationships in Washington these days. It is a fascinating study in how Washington works - and always has worked.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remembering a Good Ol' Boy

Bruce King...The Genuine Article It is a cliche to say it, but they don't make 'em like former New Mexico Governor Bruce King any more. King died last week at the age of 85. Folksy, plain spoken, a back slapping, hand pumping cowboy politician, King was a middle of the road Democrat and was elected governor three times in non-consecutive terms - 1970, 1978 and 1990. Current Governor Bill Richardson said of King, "He was as genuine and colorful as his cowboy boots. I can just hear him say `mighty fine' as he shook another hand." King's career was that of an increasingly rare breed in American politics - a personality above all, a real person without pretense who never met a stranger. You certainly knew he was in the room. I saw him in action many times at meetings where governors would gather. I introduced myself one time and never had to again. He remembered. Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, said he always tried to sit near King at governors' meetings "knowing if I did I'd get a laugh and a lesson in life and politics." King was also known for his occasional ability to mangle the English language, a characteristic that no doubt endeared him even more to the speak plain caucus in New Mexico. He once said of a dubious proposal that it "would open a whole box of Pandora's." The Santa Fe New Mexican called King the state's "most loved leader and friendliest dignitary." My old boss, Cecil Andrus, had to call King once to remind him that only potatoes grown in Idaho could be called "Idaho potatoes." Apparently someone in New Mexico was using "grown in Idaho" potato sacks to repackage New Mexico potatoes. Bruce took care of it. In a story that may well have been apocryphal, but sure sounds like Bruce King, the governor was once asked his position on the controversial Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the so called WIPP Site, near Carlsbad. The massive Department of Energy project, years in construction, created a vast underground burial site encased in an ancient salt deposit where certain types of nuclear waste material is sent to slowly shed its radioactivity. King allegedly said, in his twangy New Mexico voice, "Half of my constituents support the WIPP Site and half of my constituents oppose the WIPP Site and I'm with my constituents." We could use a few more Bruce Kings - the best kind of good ol' boy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Robust and Complicated Debate

Rexburg Speech Sparks, Well, Sparks LDS Church Apostle Dallin Oaks gave a speech a while back at the church's growing and impressive school at Rexburg - BYU Idaho - that received some spirited attention in religious and civil rights circles and, considering the subject - same sex unions - not surprisingly, the speech generated some controversy. The subject has become, I think, a very difficult one for the media to handle and typically historical perspective is lacking. Framing the issue as one involving a question of conflicting rights, however, requires a certain willingness to grapple with the American experience regarding religious expression and the struggle for equality. Dallin Oaks didn't start this debate, but his speech in Rexburg may have sharpened it. Oaks is an impressive fellow. He taught law at the University of Chicago, served as president of Brigham Young University, was a Utah Supreme Court judge, and now serves on the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In Republican administrations, Oaks has been considered a potential U. S. Supreme Court nominee. The subject of his Rexburg speech was religious freedom and the intimidation of members of the LDS faith that Oaks believes has come about as a result of the church's opposition to same sex marriage proposals in California. In casting his concerns in terms of religious freedom, he incensed some by drawing parallels with the 1960's civil rights movement. "The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing," said Oaks. "The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom." As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, the LDS Church urged its "followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses." Oaks said, "In their effect [these actions] are like the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil rights legislation." Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP's Salt Lake branch (and a former Idahoan), told the Tribune there is "no comparison" between what members of the LDS faith have endured and what civil rights advocates suffered. "I don't see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights," she said. "What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue." This is a fascinating and important discussion because it brings at least two fundamental American values - religious freedom (and religious expression, however it is defined) into conflict with a claim of a basic civil liberty. The conflict is as old as the republic and as fresh as the morning headlines. It is also a study in how an issue can be framed and packaged for public and media consumption - my religious expression versus your civil rights. I'm reminded of the thoughtful writing of Professor Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Marty has written of Abraham Lincoln's willingness to invoke the Almighty in his political discourse. In fact, Lincoln - not a church joiner - may have spoken of God more often in his public discourse and writing than any other president. Marty's essay about Lincoln and religion notes that the 16th president wrote in 1864 to the Baptist Home Mission Society thanking the religious group for its support of his anti-slavery and Emancipation policies. As Professor Marty has noted: "Of course, clergy in the South were claiming the same quality of biblical warrants for their pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-Confederacy causes, and Lincoln had to deride them for that. Only a year or two before, he wrote the Society: "'Those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ‘As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, and thus, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical." Then, as Marty says, after having identified the South and its clergy with the satanic and the devilish, Lincoln qualified his point: “But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’” Ironically, Marty notes, Lincoln had just judged in the interest of pressing a political, indeed civil rights, point. As I said, this is an old debate and a complicated one in that American rights regarding religion and civil rights, at least the perception of those rights by some, can be in sharp conflict. For what it's worth, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a recent survey that says support is growing among Americans for civil unions, but same-sex marriage is still opposed by a majority of Americans. As this debate moves forward, and it will move forward, both sides will likely continue to attempt to cast the issue in terms of its own concept of "civil rights." Without a grand compromise that balances conflicting rights, as Lincoln might have said, both sides can't be right.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Idaho Treasure

Marilyn Shuler - Great Citizen

The wonderful Marilyn Shuler will be honored this weekend with the Light of Philanthropy Award presented annually by St. Luke's Hospital.

It is difficult to believe there could be a more worthy recipient.

For years, Marilyn Shuler was the face of human rights in Idaho as she led the state's Human Rights Commission with a quiet grace and a steely commitment to dignity all enforced with the rule of law.

I had the rare pleasure of working closely with Marilyn during my time in Idaho state government. She was a role model, a powerful leader and a true moral force for good. One of my proudest moments was having a very small hand - Marilyn had a very big hand - in creating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Idaho.

Sadly, Idaho was one of the last states to recognize the remarkable accomplishments of Dr. King, but perhaps even more importantly to honor a society's commitment to human rights. It would never have happened without Marilyn's unflinching courage in overcoming the hidebound opposition to honoring Dr. King and then-Governor Cecil Andrus' determination to not allow the state to suffer a black eye by failing to publicly embrace a just and overdue cause.

Beyond her singular successful career devoted to the human rights of others, Marilyn also served with distinction on the Boise School Board, helped manage public employees retirement dollars and guided the creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. That is a decidedly partial list of accomplishments. Along the way, she touched a million lives.

Every once in a while you see that someone is receiving the kind of public recognition they really deserve. This is such a moment.

Dr. King once said: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'what are you doing for others?'"

Marilyn Shuler has answered that question with a lifetime of service to others. She is an Idaho treasure.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Civilization Requires Civility

A Great Speech...
When I noted a few weeks back that President Obama had made a good and interesting selection - former GOP Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa - to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I did not expect such speedy confirmation of what a good appointment it was. Happily, it sounds like Leach will indeed be a great Chairman of the NEH.
At the National Humanities Conference last week in Omaha, Leach offered a stirring defense of the importance of humanities education and made the case for using the lessons of the humanities to quide us in a better direction with our politics and policy. His speech is well worth reading for any student of American history and politics.
A Leach talk in September about bridging cultures - he was talking about the western world and the Muslim world - was also excellent.
If you have ever wondered whether we need to teach humanities in the public schools - along with math and science - or whether there is a price to pay for a lack of civility in our public discourse, read Leach's Omaha speech. A couple of excerpts:
On applying the humanities to public policy
"The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.
"In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?
"Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?"
And this on the often nasty tone of our public discourse:
"In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled 'fascist' and 'communist.' One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for 'un-American activities.'
"Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of 'secession.'
"Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all."
A Plea for Civility
Chairman Leach indicated he will focus attention on the critical importance of civility and how the humanities can give us a respect - and yes, understanding - for perspectives different from our own.
Jim Leach knows of what he speaks. In some quarters - one blogger calls him "a pro-Obama turncoat" - he has suffered vilification for breaking ranks with the GOP. In our superheated political kitchen, one man's turncoat is another's statesman. And, Leach offers the perfect cooling sentiment.
"Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.
"Civilization requires civility." Amen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Only In America

First Nations Get Real Attention Barack Obama got off a wonderful line last week when he spoke to more than 500 of the nation's tribal leaders at a major conference in Washington. The president recalled his Montana campaign last year and the occasion of his adoption by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle of the Crow Tribe. "Only in America," Obama said, "could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States." The quip reportedly got a big laugh and illustrates Obama's deft touch and graceful sense of humor. The presidential attention may also signal a new day - long overdue - of federal government attention to tribal issues. In 1934, another president - Franklin Roosevelt - on another trip to Montana was honored by the Blackfeet Tribe with a ceremony near Two-Medicine Chalet in Glacier National Park. That's FDR in the back seat of his Cadillac touring car. He had spent the day touring the park. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is standing next to then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. In my read of New Deal history, FDR's policies toward tribal nations were a mixed bag. Roosevelt championed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or, as then-BIA Commissioner John Collier preferred, the Indian New Deal. Well intentioned as most of Roosevelt's policy was, it still suffered from a "Washington knows best" bias and even Collier, a generally great Commissioner, possessed a heavy paternalist hand. Obama's moves so far seem to hold great promise for true progress on tribal issues. Obama's joke about his adopted status was a light hearted moment during an otherwise substantive meeting; a meeting that was almost completely overshadowed in the news cycle by the tragic shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas. Concluding his remarks, the president said: "I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two years old, leaving her -- my mother and my grandparents to raise me. We didn't have much. We moved around a lot. So even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House." Mark Trahant, an Idaho native from Ft. Hall and a thoughtful commentator on Native American issues, says Obama's decision to put the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the center of coordinating federal policy regarding tribal nations means the president means business. I agree. Any good bureaucrat knows that policy follows the money. Obama's tone and his appointments - former Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs - together with his empathy and directives to the bureaucracy could truly mark a new era. Let's hope so.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Very Fine Line

Does Idaho's Blue Dog Risk His Base? There is a fundamental rule in politics - the first and most important rule, perhaps - that is ignored by any politician at considerable risk. Ask Dede Scozzafava. Scozzafava was the Republican congressional candidate in a recent special election in upstate New York who could not hold on to a seat that has been in GOP hands since U.S. Grant was in the White House. Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the special election and endorsed the Democrat who eventually won. Her demise was sealed thanks to a badly fractured Republican base that thought she had strayed way too far from party orthodoxy. Her political situation was exacerbated - and fate ultimately sealed - by a third party candidate who appealed to the most conservative voters in the heavily Republican-leaning district. In short, the special election in the 23rd District of New York was a real mess, but the wreckage illustrates that fundamental rule. Secure your base. Republicans are still beaming over two gubernatorial victories last week in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, capable Republican challengers won against damaged Democrats who where unable to excite the party base that carried Barack Obama to victory in both states just a year ago. Most post-election analysis has confirmed that Democrats in both states were not terribly motivated, while the GOP core was very excited. Independents in both states helped closed the deal for the Republicans. In short, Republicans secured and motivated their base. Democrats did not. Idaho's lone congressional Democrat, Walt Minnick, now confronts a similar problem as he walks the very fine line demanded of a western Democrat in a deep red state. Minnick must know that his base is restless. Minnick's dilemma - the line he walks - might be reduced to this: in a state like Idaho, he must be an independent with a conservative lean, but at the same time he cannot risk turning his Democratic base - small as it is - against him. Minnick represents Idaho's sprawling First District that runs from the west Boise suburbs, south to the Nevada border and north all the way to British Columbia. The district includes the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 named for Frank Church, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate, as well as the deepest canyon in North America. The University of Idaho, a fine research school, is in the district, as is the plot of ground where the white supremacist Aryan Nation once held forth. Since the 1950's, at least, the district has grown increasingly more conservative. Three GOP congressmen who once represented the First District - Jim McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig - went to the Senate from this reliably Republican outpost. For a Democrat, the margin of error in the First District is, well, there is no margin for error for a Democrat. Minnick won the challenging job of representing this huge district a year ago by narrowly defeating a deeply polarizing incumbent, Bill Sali, who ran hard to the right. Before last fall, the district had not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992. Minnick won the way Democrats have often won in Idaho, by defeating a weak Republican - Bill Sali - who had his own problems keeping the GOP base together. Church got his start this way and so did Cecil Andrus and each found a way to keep winning with a consistent appeal to the base and a winning message to the middle. A year ago, Minnick was able to knit together a coalition that included an energized Democratic base that came to like Obama, salted with just enough moderate R's who couldn't fancy more Bill Sali, and complemented by independents who typically vote for Republicans unless they find them, as they did Sali, just too far out of the mainstream. This is the very political definition of fragile territory. To his strategic credit, Minnick also played to the middle, stressing his farm upbringing while touting his business acumen. His campaign also succeeding in showing Idahoans that he not only supports guns, but uses them. It all added up to just enough to eek out a win in a presidential election year when John McCain polled more than 61% of the Idaho vote. Late last Saturday night, Minnick cast a vote that may go a long way toward securing his political fate. Idaho's lone Democrat on the national stage joined 38 other conservative Democrats - the so called Blue Dogs - in opposition to the party's health care legislation that passed the House by the narrowest of margins. For good measure, Minnick also voted against the rule that allowed the Democratic bill to come to a final vote. In other words, he went the distance in opposition to a idea - health care reform - that is as fundamental to many Democrats as FDR's old campaign song "Happy Days Are Here Again." [Long-time Idaho political observer, Randy Stapilus, also suggests that Minnick may have complicated his already delicate dance on the health care legislation by opposing the contentious amendment, backed by many Blue Dogs, to restrict funding for abortion.] While health care legislation might be the vote that most of his constituents remember the longest, Minnick has also been at odds with party theology over the last few months on the stimulus package, climate change legislation and some aspects of financial services reform. He may well have succeeded in becoming the most independent Democrat in the House, but that label hasn't kept him from making every list of most vulnerable incumbents in 2010. He and two potential Republican challengers are amassing war chests and this figures to be a dog fight - blue or otherwise - in the months ahead. For his part, former Congressman Sali continues to flirt with a potential re-run, a situation that could end up being the best case for the current incumbent. A year out from his re-elect, here are the questions worth pondering: Will Minnick pay a price among hardcore Democratic supporters for his independence on issues like health care? Or, as he must believe, will he be able to thread the electoral needle once again; re-assemble the Democratic base, again add enough moderates from the GOP and pull a sizable majority of independents? To be sure there are a world of votes ahead, including presumably the ultimate vote in Congress to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a health care reform bill, and Republicans in Idaho's First District are still months away from selecting Minnick's challenger. Lots of things can - and probably will - happen. Still, as New York, Virginia and New Jersey show most recently, and as successful politicians know instinctively, the party base needs to feel the love. Your friends hate to be taken for granted. In Minnick's district, I'm going to peg the dependable Democratic base - it has consistently dwindled since 1990 - at something north of 30%, perhaps even 35%, of the voters. These are the folks that show up at fundraisers, put up yard signs, man phone banks and walk parade routes handing out a candidate's literature. They also talk to their friends about politics and politicians. You want the base working and voting, not restless and wondering. There are never numbers enough among the base to elect a Democrat in Idaho, but if these folks decide - even in modest numbers - to sit one out, there are numbers enough to defeat a Democrat. This is Walt Minnick's dilemma and it requires walking a very fine line indeed.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wait Until Next Year

Is It Spring Yet? While I wait for the warmth of spring and the baseball fan's certainty that opening day (148 days away by my count) brings all things new again with every team in first place, I content myself with thougths like these: "As I think back and look forward, I see how nothing is straightforward nothing is unambiguous. Salvation does not come through simplicities, either of sentiment or system. The gray, grainy complex nature of existence and the ragged edges of our lives as we lead them defy hunger for a neat, bordered existence and for spirits unsullied by doubt or despair." ~ A. Bart Giamatti 'A good cigar is like a beautiful chick with a great body who also knows the American League box scores." ~ Corporal Klinger from MASH. (He was a fan of the Toledo Mud Hens if I recall correctly.) "That's baseball, and it's my game. Y' know, you take your worries to the game, and you leave 'em there. You yell like crazy for your guys. It's good for your lungs, gives you a lift, and nobody calls the cops. Pretty girls, lots of 'em." ~ Humphrey Bogart "Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It's staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in." ~ Casey Stengel "There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare." ~Tallulah Bankhead "From here on in, I rag nobody.” ~ Henry Wiggen, the pitcher in Mark Harris' classic book "Bang the Drum Slowly." "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." ~ Rogers Hornsby Exactly.

Friday, November 6, 2009

It Might As Well Be Winter

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart." - A. Bartlett Giamatti The late, great Commissioner of Baseball, Bart Giamatti, while serving as President of Yale, said: "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League." He ended up heading the National League and somehow - what were baseball owners thinking - they made this brilliant, big hearted man of unflinching integrity the boss of baseball in 1989. Giamatti, a real commissioner back when baseball owners fleetingly thought they wanted a real commissioner, had a writer's sensibility and a fan's devotion to the great game. A Renaissance literature scholar, Giamatti was also a street smart ethicist who knew Pete Rose had to be the example of baseball's zero tolerance for a lack of integrity. I have often wondered how as Commissioner Giamatti would have dealt with the drug scandals of recent years. I think I know. The owners wouldn't have liked it. Shortly after his very premature death after just a few months as Commissioner, Joe Garagiola, the broadcaster and one-time backup catcher, summed up the Commissioner: "One thing you can be sure of, you'll never hear anyone say I knew someone exactly like Bart Giamatti." Giamatti's little book - A Great and Glorious Game - contains some of the best writing ever about baseball. At this time of year, with the World Series decided, with NFL and college football dominating the sports page, with the warmth and green of another spring a far distant thought, I always think of Giamatti and his superb, poetic little essay The Green Fields of the Mind. "The game begins in the spring," he wrote, "when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." Put another log on the fire. It will be a damn long winter. I hope I can wait until once again those glorious words are spoken in the spring: "pitchers and catchers report."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Morning After the Morning After

What Are The Lessons From Election '09? Are Republicans poised for a comeback? Sure. We are a two party nation and - with apologies to the 1840's Whig Party - the party out of power always finds a way to claw back to relevance. Does the GOP have some challenges? Absolutely. Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis sums it up well when he says the party out of power has a chance now to catch a wave of voter anger about the economy and spending: "The challenge for Republicans is to catch that lightening in a bottle and build a coalition that can lead you to huge congressional gains," Davis said. "But it's easier said than done." Do the elections of Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia signal danger ahead for the Democrats? Perhaps. I tend to think gubernatorial races normally turn on more local issues - taxes, roads, and schools - but the party in power is due for a gut check. The message from the two statewide races Tuesday may simply be that "it's the economy, stupid." Are Democrats listening? The most interesting races, with potential national implications, took place in New York. The upstate congressional special election illustrates the tensions in the GOP. And the Big Apple's mayoral contest proves, well, I don't have any idea what it proves. Money buys happiness, perhaps. As Governing magazine notes: "The race cost [Michael] Bloomberg an estimated $90 million. In his three races, Bloomberg has spent more of his personal fortune on campaigns than any candidate in U.S. history. Now, Bloomberg and the city face a $5 billion budget deficit." So, let the Republican and Democratic message machines spin Tuesday's results as they will. The election that will tell us more about the longer term direction of the country will take place next November. As CQ notes: "The governing party almost always loses seats in midterm elections, when the voter turnout is lower and the bulk of the energy and enthusiasm is with the opposition party. With 257 House seats, Democrats are nearing the maximum number of seats they could conceivably control under the current Congressional maps. Surveys show the 2010 elections could be unfriendly to incumbents." Many things are in play for both parties, primarily the economy. Will things be a good deal better next summer or fall? Will the GOP be able to unite behind something (or someone) positive as an alternative to Barack Obama? Will Afghanistan be front and center as a kitchen table issue? Could this be an historical parallel? In the mid-term elections in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt's party actually expanded its margins in the Congress even as the economy remained in the ditch. Voters concluded that FDR had an optimistic plan and was both trustworthy in carrying out the plan and focused on the concerns of most Americans. Congressional Republicans in the 1934 mid-term elections were unable to articulate an effective alternative to FDR's still emerging plans and they simply had no counter to his likable disposition and communication skills. Many shrill voices took to calling the president a dictator, a socialist, or worse, but the vast majority of Americans simply didn't buy it. We know Obama has read this history. But knowing history's lessons and applying them is only part of the challenge of political leadership. My guess is the president can still tap a reservoir of patience among most Americans, but by next summer voters will really be judging him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dame Helen

Can't Wait For This Film Is there a better actress in the world than Helen Mirren? OK, maybe Meryl Streep, but it would be a close contest...or a tie. Ever since Mirren seemed to inhabit the role of the hard living, chain smoking, hard luck British Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the superb Masterpiece Theatre series on PBS, she has been better and better in each succeeding television or film role. Now she is poised to open in Boise director Michael Hoffman's new film - The Last Station - about the life of Leo Tolstoy. Dame Helen plays Tolstoy's wife, Sofia. She won the best actress award at the recent Rome film festival for her role in Hoffman's new film and the Daily Telegraph has an interview on Mirren's return to her family roots in Russia. The film opens in January next year. I'm sure the film will be great, but Helen Mirren, well - she's just the best.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Health Care Reform

States May Still Call the Shots Here is the opening graph of a Washington Post piece that ran on November 1st: "The debate over whether to let states opt out of any government-run health insurance plan overlooks a key facet of the health-care measures being assembled in Congress: When Washington is done, the shape of any new health-care system is likely to be finalized in Lansing and Boise and Baton Rouge." The full Post story is here. Will states be up to the challenge? Indianapolis may be an example of what local initiative can accomplish. Emergency responders in the Indiana capitol city now have wireless access to medical records. According to the publication, Federal Computer Week, "The goal is to help the medics provide more effective emergency care to patients by having real-time access to a digital record of the patients’ pre-existing medical conditions, previous treatments, allergies, current medications and other information." Like almost all big changes in American public policy, much of the detail and implementation in health care and insurance reform- regardless of the overheated rhetoric out of Washington, D.C. - will take place under the eyes of part-time, citizen legislators. Depending upon your point of view, that could be a very good thing or not. We will find out, piece by piece, state by state.

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Souls

A Day of Remembrance
On All Souls Day, a remembrance of those we love and live among us in memory, two poems by John Updike and W.B. Yeats.
I can't get this little Updike poem - one of his last - out of my head and, on this crisp fall day of remembrance, it once again seems particularly appropriate. It came to me the other day: Were I to die, no one would say, "Oh, what a shame! So young, so full Of promise - depths unplumable!" Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes Will greet my overdue demise; The wide response will be, I know, "I thought he died a while ago." For life's a shabby subterfuge, And death is real, and dark, and huge, The shock of it will register Nowhere but where it will occur. - John Updike from "Endpoint and Other Poems"
And Yeats's - All Souls' Night

Epilogue to “A Vision’ Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell And may a lesser bell sound through the room; And it is All Souls’ Night, And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come; For it is a ghost’s right, His element is so fine Being sharpened by his death, To drink from the wine-breath While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

The rest of the All Souls' Night is here: