Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dallek on Obama

Health Care Reform: A Lasting Legacy or Not Robert Dallek, biographer of Kennedy and LBJ and skilled analyst of White House leadership, is, I believe, the best of the "presidential historians." Dallek is evenhanded, accomplished and always engaging in making the historical connections between, say Barack Obama's push this year for health care reform and Franklin Roosevelt's advocacy of Social Security in the 1930's. Dallek's op-ed piece this week in the Wall Street Journal is a fitting wrap-up of this year in presidential politics and a must read. Here is a key section: "If the reform works as intended by expanding health insurance to an additional 30 million Americans and reducing the national debt, the Democrats will pillory the Republicans for the indefinite future. The GOP's uniform opposition—only one congressman and no Republican senators supported the bill—will make it vulnerable to charges of wrong-minded thinking about the suffering of fellow citizens on a scale with Herbert Hoover's failed response to the Great Depression. That cost his party five presidential elections. "Should the bill fall short of promised gains, it will reinforce national prejudices against big government and facilitate another round of conservative Republican dominance of national politics." That pretty well sums it up. Watch for Bob Dallek's new book in the new year: The Lost Peace - Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope. HarperCollins is the publisher.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up In The Air

Three Sensible Alternatives...Call Them TSA
I don't fly, thank the Lord, as much as George Clooney's character in the funny and engaging new film Up In The Air. Clooney's road warrior - his name is Ryan Bingham in the movie - is on the quest to reach 10,000,000 miles in the air and earn even more special perks - the platinum ID card and visit with the Chief Pilot, for instance - that go with such numbers. The traveling Bingham brags that he spent only 42 days at home last year.
I'm no Ryan Bingham, but I traveled on average once every other week during 2009. In my world, that is good enough to get special treatment - well, early boarding - on Horizon Airlines. You gotta start somewhere.
Any frequent traveler will identify with the scene in Up In The Air where Clooney is explaining the travel ropes to a young novice. Don't over pack. Never check luggage. Wear slip on shoes. Never get in the TSA line behind a couple with children or where the swarthy looking young men will be targets for "additional screening."
All this movie truth seems particularly relevant in light of the latest breakdown in air security that allowed a would be bomber to board a Northwest Airlines flight in Europe and come close to causing havoc on a fully loaded airplane approaching Detroit. Now the all to familiar, post-terror incident cycle unrolls once again. Bring on the political outrage. Cue Dick Cheney. Order up an investigation. This just in: air security doesn't work very well.
My only qualification for comment on any of this is travel experience. I observe. I wish TSA would, too. So, at the risk of getting placed on the dreaded list that causes my wife, Pat - she does look like a terrorist - to get "additional screening" whenever she travels, I offer up Three Sensible Alternatives. My own little TSA.
Screen for the most obvious threat. I know, I know, no racial profiling. I'm a card carrying member of the ACLU, but lets be clear: the terrorist threat against the United States of America is overwhelmingly centered in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Young men from these places tend to be the operatives. When a traveler matching this profile attempts to fly into the USA, maybe they should automatically get additional screening, including a very detailed personal interview. This is the Israeli model. It is not racial profiling. It is managing against the most obvious, demonstrated, repeated threat. A sensible alternative would be to concentrate more and more resources on the most obvious threats and spend less and less time at SeaTac Airport frisking the 89 year old woman in a wheel chair.
Observe behavior and ask questions. I have done my own little survey on this point. You can try it yourself. You know the drill. Present your photo ID and boarding pass at the TSA checkpoint and start observing how often the agent actually compares your ID to your face. I'd say it has happened to me about one time in 50 in the last year. The agents appear to be trained to make sure the name on the ID matches the name on the boarding pass. That's good, as far as it goes. A sensible alternative would be to train them to actually look at the passengers and assess what they see. Same goes with the little clear plastic bags of toilet items that now must come out of your carry on luggage. Does anyone ever really look at what is in those bags? Not in my experience. My point is this: our security system will never get better until we train the screeners to be more aware of what and who may pose a threat. To do better, humans must be able to observe critically and ask probing questions. Well-trained police officers do this all the time. They question and observe. As a nation, we have long lacked "human intelligence" capabilities. In other words, our system assumes that observing and questioning is beyond the boundary of acceptable airport security. I think it is the key to a better system.
Finally, use the best technology. We know full body scanners work. Use them. Spend what is needed to get the TSA database to interact with the State Department's list of foreign nationals holding American visas. Why haven't we done this? Beats me. Must be politics. Or perhaps we could just outsource our security to the Israelis...or the Canadians. With a valid US passport in hand, clearing security in Ottawa for a return to the USA earlier this year was a professional and thorough process. Lots of questions. Lots of observing. Lots of technology. Gotta love the Canadians.
I wonder what the response will be to the latest terror threat? The shoe bomber caused us to remove our shoes. The next threat produced those little zip lock bags for toilet items. Considering the most recent would-be bomber was reportedly carrying explosives in his underwear, I can see where this is going. No more boxer shorts on international flights.
Now, I'm moving over to the line for additional screening. And, go see Up In The Air. Clooney is great.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Good Reads

A Good Half Dozen
It is the time of year for lists of the "best of" of 2009, a year that may go down in memory as not leaving all that much to recommend it. Nonetheless, some new and not-so-new reads during the year are truly worthy of mention. None of these made the New York Times list or won the Booker Prize, but did make The Johnson Post half dozen.
The best political biography I have read in a long time in John Milton Cooper's life of the endlessly fascinating, endlessly flawed 28th president of the United States Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson - A Biography will likely remain the definitive treatment of Wilson for years to come. Cooper, a University of Wisconsin historian, is the Wilson scholar and he writes with a lively, engaging style that leaves none of Wilson's many accomplishments - academic visionary, legislative maestro - or numerous shortcomings - stubborn, partisan - unconsidered. Still, Cooper likes his subject and we should, too. Reading this marvelous book made it clear once again that the modern world began in the Wilson Age. The world that emerged from "the war to end all wars" - not Wilson's phrase, by the way - is the world of today: a violent Middle East, the fractured Balkans, a phony country called Iraq, etc.
For sheer delight in reading about a major figure of the 20th Century, few tomes can compare with Paul Johnson's new, short biography of Winston Churchill. Johnson, a great writer and generally revisionist historian, captures Churchill in just 166 pages; no mean feat considering the great man's life spanned the 20th Century from The Boer War to the Cold War. Johnson is particularly good at illustrating Churchill's humanity. He was a damn tough taskmaster, but remarkably gentle with political foes once he had bested them. He taught himself to be a great speaker through - listen up would be politicos - endless practice and polish. He loved good Champagne and Johnson estimates that he may have consumed 20,000 bottles in his long lifetime. This is a great little book.
I approached Ted Kennedy's memoir, published after his death, with some trepidation. Would Teddy offer up the typical book by a politician - interesting perhaps, but not really revealing? Kennedy's book - True Compass - may, as his Senate career did, set a standard for such efforts. Kennedy candidly discusses his shortcomings and offers real insight into the "Kennedy Way". His portrait of his father, Joe Kennedy, is particularly good and will cause a rethinking of the old man and his influence on American politics.
A final non-fiction pick for 2009 would be Antony Beevor's D-Day, a superb re-telling of the Allied landings on the Normandy coast in June 1944 and the first major new book on the subject in 20 years. All the major players are here: Eisenhower, the brilliant organizer and politician, de Gaulle, Omar Bradley, Rommel, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., but also the common soldier, sailor and airmen who accomplished the single greatest invasion ever undertaken. The invasion was brutal, brilliant, chaotic, callous and history changing. Beevor captures all of the story and suggests, as others have, that the invasion could well have ended in disaster. He also makes the case that atrocities - Allied bombing of French civilians and summary execution of prisoners on both sides, for example - have long been ignored in the myth making surrounding what Rommel called "the longest day."
One of the best fiction reads this year was Jim Harrison's The English Major. Harrison takes readers on a cross country romp from Michigan to Montana with funny and telling stops along the way. His hero is a 60ish English major turned backwoods farmer who finds himself without a wife and without much purpose in life. If you know Harrison, you'll not be surprised that the book is full of quirky characters, massive amounts of food and drink and, of course, sex. The guy can write.
I have seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet a dozen times and it is always enjoyable, but had never read The Maltese Falcon until recently. Dashiell Hammett's classic was published nearly 80 years ago and it remains a great read. The John Huston movie is very faithful to the book, even using word-for-word dialogue, but there is no substitute for Hammett's lean, clean prose coming off the page. This is the essential detective story.
Happy reading in 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

A Dickens of a Christmas There is a current school of thought that holds that Charles Dickens "invented" many of our current customs regarding how Christmas is celebrated. For sure his story about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge has become a timeless classic and the Christmas feast a much anticipated routine. Truth be told, the celebration of Christmas has long been a work in progress - sorry Bill O'Reilly - and always the subject of some controversy. The Boston Globe had a wonderful piece this week about how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries in New England. It is worth a read. I learned, for instance, that Boston Puritans in the 1600's effectively outlawed Christmas. As author Stephen Nissenbaum writes: "On December 25, 1685, Boston Magistrate Samuel Sewall proudly wrote in his journal that 'the Body of the People profane the Day'- that is, the town’s residents went about their work as usual - 'and blessed be God no Authority yet compel them to keep it.' Indeed, in a kind of reverse Blue Law, for a quarter century during the mid-1600s the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts actually outlawed its celebration." What were those Puritans thinking? Garrison Keillor had some choice things to say recently about messing with Christmas tradition. He doesn't like it, and he likes Silent Night just the way it is and, by the way, he isn't crazy about those "lousy holiday songs" either, thank you. "Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off," Keillor wrote. "Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah." Keillor's column, big surprise, offended Unitarians (and Jewish songwriters) and may have, momentarily, pleased that policeman of Christmas correctness the bombastic Mr. O'Reilly. Who'da thought that possible? As for me, I like the Dickens Christmas sentiment best of all. In the great scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge tells the ghost that he had once been a great businessman. Marley's disagreeing response is, in many ways, the essence of Christmas: “Mankind was my business,” Marley says. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Now, there is a Christmas sentiment. Best wishes to you and yours for a Very Happy Christmas. And, yes, I'm sticking with "Happy Christmas" - not the popular and generic "Happy Holidays." My own tradition. Thanks to Dickens for that great story. I like what it has done for Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Montana's Mansfield

A Model of the Modern Majority Leader Next to operating from the Oval Office, the front row desk on the majority side of the aisle in the United States Senate is arguably the most difficult perch in politics. That seat is where the Majority Leader sits - or stands - and attempts to move forward the world's greatest deliberative body. Mike Mansfield, by general agreement, did the job better than anyone ever has. Not bad for a one-time mucker from the copper mines of Butte, Montana. During this holiday season, as the Senate rancorously flails its way to a conclusion on health insurance reform legislation, ol' Mike is looking better than ever. Current leader Harry Reid of Nevada will get - and deserve - any credit (or blame) due if Congress does complete the legislation, as is looking likely. But Reid has gotten to the finish line with a much different style than Mansfield would have used and, as a result, he presides over a much different Senate. As Reid pushes for a bill, difficulties and tempers flare around the leader. His home state situation is troubling, too. Reid trails in the polls in Nevada and his unfortunate comments equating GOP opposition to the health insurance bill to support for slavery riled the Senate. Mansfield was from a different era, for sure, but his was also a time - like ours - of great divide in the country. Somehow he made the Senate work a lot better than the current model. It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the truly incredible Mansfield and his style in the Senate. Mike, as his Montana constituents knew him, held the Senate's top job longer than anyone in history - from 1961 to 1977. His memory is revered in Montana and deserves to be long remembered in the history of American politics in the 20th Century. Through civil rights legislation, through Vietnam, LBJ's Great Society, Watergate and investigations of the CIA, Mansfield cultivated an approach to leading the Senate that involved less of him and more of everyone else. He insisted on fair play and dignity. Mansfield once stopped proceedings on the Senate floor in the middle of a roll call vote to demand that an amendment be considered that then-rookie Republican Ted Stevens felt had been given short shrift. Another Senator had given Stevens his word that the amendment would be considered, but then reneged on the pledge. Mansfield made it right. Stevens never forgot the moment and he told me years later that he considered Mansfield the Senate's greatest leader and an even greater person. No faint praise coming from a highly partisan Republican Very late in his life, I had a fascinating few minutes with Mansfield in his Washington, D.C. office. He was long out of the Senate, had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan under both a Democratic and Republican president and was, just shy of 100 years old, still working almost every day as an advisor to Goldman Sachs. He came out of his tidy office in the old Washington Star building to greet me, ushered me to a comfortable chair and proceeded to make me a cup of coffee. I realized at that moment some of the secret to his success. He was practicing the "servant as leader" approach to personal relationships. He had no need to see me, nothing to gain from offering 45 minutes of his time, and had no doubt answered the same questions that I would put to him a thousand times. Still he displayed for me the same qualities he used so successfully and for so long in the Senate - civility, respect, kindness, attention to detail and candor. We spoke that day of Montana political history and I remember asking him his assessment of the great Montana political figures. He mentioned Senators Lee Metcalf, Thomas Walsh, Jim Murray and Burton K. Wheeler before allowing that he would rank below all of them in all-time accomplishment. I questioned his ranking and he firmly pointed out that I had asked him for his assessment. "And that is my assessment," he said. There is no institution of our government remotely like the United States Senate. It was designed by the founders to be slow. Tradition says that every Senator, no matter how junior or powerful, can bring the place to a grinding halt with two words - "I object." The last few weeks have often shown the Senate at its worst, locked in endless parliamentary combat with Democrats seemingly more focused on gathering up the magic 60 votes to stop a filibuster than in producing understandable reform. Republicans have played the obstruction card full tilt, which Senate rules allow if not encourage. The civility and respect that a Mike Mansfield brought to the leadership seems totally lacking on both sides of the aisle these days. It seems like Reid and his GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell are so locked in blind partisanship that they can't see what the rest of the country sees - legislative chaos and incredibly unproductive gamesmanship. Contrast that with Mike's approach to incredibly contentious civil rights legislation in the 1960's. As Don Oberdorfer writes in his masterful biography of Mansfield, the Majority Leader knew, as he prepared for what turned out to be the longest Senate debate in history, that he first had to deal with southern Democrats opposed to any civil rights legislation. The southerners, like today's Republicans, were determined to slow and, if possible, kill any bill with the filibuster. In those days, it required even more votes - 67 - to cut off the talking and start the voting. With great dignity and deference, Mansfield called the cagey leader of the southerners, Georgia's Richard Russell, to his office and explained in detail the approach he would be taking to the legislation. Oberdorfer writes, "Russell was astounded by Mansfield's candor and wondered if it were a prelude to some unpleasant surprise - perhaps a discovery of an obscure provision in the rules that had somehow eluded the master parliamentary experts from Dixie." Oberdorfer goes on to quote Mansfield: "I kept Russell informed of every move that we made on the civil rights bill. I don't think he took me too seriously at first, but he did with the passage of time. [There were] no back strokes, no hidden areas." Next, Mansfield invited the Republican leader, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, into the strategy development - Dirksen produced 40 amendments - and Mansfield insisted that his staff work to get the GOP leader the press attention he coveted and that ultimately lead to Dirksen receiving much of the credit for passing the landmark legislation. When Senators gathered after the historic vote to congratulate each other and claim credit, Mansfield avoided being in any of the photographs. He conspicuously gave away the credit to others. Still, most Senators knew who had created the atmosphere for progress. Florida's George Smathers summed up the feeling. "Much of the credit for the fact that [the bill] was disposed of without leaving large schisms was due to the good, calm, patient, magnanimous, long suffering and much admired Mike Mansfield." My favorite Mansfield story is told by former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, another wonderful and talented Butte Irishman. Pat had tried and failed, while Mansfield was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, to lure the former leader to Capitol Hill so that he could be feted appropriately for his years of statesmanship. Finally, on a pretext, Mansfield had to come to a reception and be part of a receiving line where he quickly became the star attraction amid much praise of his work in the Senate and the Far East. When Williams reached out to shake hands with the former Senator, Mansfield pulled him in close and whispered, "Pat, what are we going to do about the Berkeley Pit?" Never one to stand on any kind of ceremony, Mansfield was thinking, even at that moment and far away from Montana, about the massive Superfund site in his hometown. The U.S. Senate may never see another leader like Mike Mansfield and that is a real shame for the Senate and the nation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Race for Idaho Governor - Part II

Six Things to Watch in Otter vs. Allred As the New Year unfolds, Idaho voters may experience something they haven't often witnessed lately - an interesting gubernatorial campaign. After months of speculation that long-suffering Idaho Democrats might not field a serious candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter, a newcomer with interesting credentials jumped into the fray last week. Yesterday's post discussed the broad dynamics of the down and out Idaho Democrats and whether Keith Allred's surprise candidacy can jump start their fortunes. Today: a half dozen things worth watching as this race unfolds. 1) How will the 2010 Idaho Legislature turn? The last two sessions have featured intra-party brawls between House and Senate Republicans and between Otter and GOP legislative leaders. The battles betray the fault lines between the more moderate elements in the party and the more conservative and have helped stall the governor's legislative agenda, primarily transportation funding. It has been Otter's fate to preside during a time of severe retrenchment and with the state's economy still off in the ditch, the coming session promises more budget cutting and service reductions. Having been served this plate of political drama, Democrats haven't been able to capitalize. So, watch how education funding fares - both K-12 and higher education - and whether continued deterioration in these areas really cause, or can be made to cause, consternation at the state's kitchen tables. 2) By late summer or early fall will there be any discrenible improvement in the economy? Every incumbent would like a crystal ball on this question. At Christmas week, the state's unemployment rate stands at a shade over 9%. If we could predict where that rate will stand on Labor Day and whether jobs and economic issues become a centerpiece of the coming campaign, we would have a better idea of whether an Otter-Allred match up will feature a real election or merely the run-up to a second term Otter coronation. 3) Can Allred gather the resources to run a credible race? The last two gubernatorial elections showed there is probably a million dollars available for any Idaho Democrat who works hard and seems credible. Still, carrying the fight to a well-financed incumbent is always an expensive proposition, particularly when one has to buy name recognition. 4) Will 2010 be a "throw the bums out election?" And, if it becomes an anti-incumbent year generally, will the notion of change gain steam across the political spectrum and in Idaho? Change was a powerful winning factor in national and state elections in 2008 and all the polling at the moment indicates folks are mad as hell and not anxious to take much more. Next year's politics could be about change all over again, particularly if challengers, regardless of party, are able to make the case that the folks in office are part of the problem. That is, historically speaking, a tough sell for a Democrat in Idaho, but there is a populist wave building in the country and the smart candidates my try to ride it until November. 5) Does Allred's personal story help him connect? The new candidate hails from Twin Falls, has a ranching background, a Harvard education, has served as an LDS Church leader and, until his announcement, could claim strong, non-partisan policy expertise. Does all that give him a chance to make his case in areas of Idaho - the Magic Valley in south central Idaho and the Upper Snake River Valley in the east, for instance - where Democrats are seldom heard and even less frequently considered worthy of a vote? While southern and eastern Idaho may seem a tempting target for a Democrat like Allred, historically the party's successful candidates have had to play well north of the Salmon River and there the personal story will be dissected and debated for its relevance to many voters who still think in terms of timber and silver, salmon and wheat. I've always thought an acid test for an Idaho Democrat was being able to campaign at the gate of the Bear Lake County Fair in Montpelier and at the Border Days Rodeo in Grangeville, while not looking out of place in either locale. No Democrat since Cece Andrus have been able to pull that off. 6) And, can Keith Allred write a fundamentally new Democratic narrative in Idaho? And, will his adopted Democratic Party let him? He will need to fashion an updated, compelling 21st Century message, build a new electoral coalition, craft a new statewide organizing principle and, oh yes, there is that money. Democrats in Idaho also always need a major dose of luck - self-made generally. A young John Kennedy warned tired and dispirited national Democrats in 1956 - with himself no doubt in mind - that the party needed "new ideas, new policies and new faces." Kennedy could have been talking about Idaho Democrats over the last 15 years. And while the political math for Democrats remains extremely difficult, a definition of "a new idea" would be nominating for governor a southern Idaho ranch kid turned Harvard professor, who is an LDS Bishop, sits a horse well and just happens to be a state government policy wonk. Will a new face like that play in Grangeville? And will Allred's consensus approach to policy catch on Bear Lake County? Stay tuned.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Race for Governor in Idaho

Cowboy Wonk Vs. Cowboy Governor Since 1994, the Idaho Democratic Party has been living the truth of the old saying about insanity. The definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Four times in a row, Idaho Democrats have run essentially the same campaign for governor and four times in a row they have lost, badly. The next Idaho gubernatorial election may - too early to tell for sure - may offer a different narrative. Twin Falls native Keith Allred threw in with the Democrats last week and barring some big surprise will be the party's candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter. I say "threw in" because until his announcement, most who have known him since he moved back to Idaho five years ago would have been hard pressed to divine his partisan leanings. After establishing a name for himself in political and media circles as a scrupulously non-partisan policy analyst and founder of a non-profit group - The Common Interest - Allred has decided to try and apply his notions about what he calls "collaborative polling" to a run for the state's highest office. Allred is a very smart guy, well spoken and engaging. He is also a first time candidate matched against a guy who has been on the ballot continuously since 1986. Allred is also, and I say this with genuine regard, a policy wonk. If an Idaho election could be decided on the basis of who knows the most about the gasoline tax, Allred would be a shoo-in, and, of course, if smart, wonkish guys always won elections, we'd be remembering the tenure of President Bill Bradley. Politics rarely works that way. Elections more often turn on other factors - human factors - such as likability, toughness, passion, organizational ability and innovation. Still a deep and wide knowledge of issues sure can't hurt a first time candidate and it is better to start informed in detail about issues than to have to learn it all during the job interview. The political and media classes know Allred by virtue of his very solid analytical work on issues like education funding and property taxes. While relationships with the chattering classes helps with early credibility, Allred is far from a household name. To state the obvious, he has a lot of ground to cover to make himself as well know as Otter who has served at Lt. Governor, Congressman and Governor for more than two decades. As the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barker correctly noted recently, Otter remains one of the best retail politicians Idahoans have ever seen and retail politics still matter in Idaho. But, back to the need for a different narrative. The Democratic Party in Idaho, never a real statewide organization, has long lacked an effective plan - including a consistent and compelling message and the leadership to push a message - that might allow it to regain the relevance it lost when Phil Batt came from behind to grab the governorship in 1994. That watershed election ended 24 straight years of Democratic dominance in the big office on the second floor of the Statehouse and Democrats have been struggling ever since. In the four elections beginning in 1994, no Democratic candidate for governor has captured more than 44% of the vote. The party and its gubernatorial candidate cry out for new approaches, for some innovation and for effective outreach to a new Idaho; the Idaho of young immigrants, Hispanics and high tech entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is admittedly easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe the precise remedy. For starters, the state has changed dramatically since 1986 when my old boss, four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus won a very close election based on his ability to target and carry 13 of the state's 44 counties. Many of those once reliably Democratic areas have long since ceased to be friendly territory for a Democrat. Organized labor, once a pillar of Democratic strength, is now, thanks in part to right to work legislation passed in 1986, much less a pillar. And the party's legislative ranks have not proven to be any kind of a farm team of gubernatorial or other statewide talent. It has been a long time since Democrats have had a successful younger candidate for major office - Andrus was 39 when he was first elected, Frank Church was 32 when he went to the Senate - who could present a new face for the party. One of the brightest potentials of the 45-year old Allred's campaign is what it might mean in terms of a youth movement for aging Idaho Democrats. The one thing that may remain relevant from the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign is the Andrus message: good schools, a good economy and a good place to live. That basic message, updated for a new century, may be more telling than ever in 2010, but, of course, every good message needs a good messenger. Meanwhile, with the exceptions of the city limits of Boise and the Sun Valley area, Republicans can, and do, contest and win elections everywhere in Idaho. The GOP does have a farm team and very importantly, as the state's population has grown over the last two decades, Otter's home county - Canyon - has become even more critical in a statewide race. Here is a telling statistic and remember the state's population growth as you consider this: In losing to Otter in 2006, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady gathered in only 5,400 more votes than Andrus did in winning the governorship 20 years earlier in that very close race against Republican David Leroy. By contrast, Otter won in 2006 with 46,000 more votes than Leroy polled against Andrus two decades ago. Those numbers - growing Republican voting strength and relatively flat Democrat numbers - represent a structural deficit for a Democrat that presents a huge challenge for anyone running statewide. Nevertheless, at first blush, the Allred candidacy has at least two things going for it: a fresh face backed by Idaho sensibilities and the potential to write a new Democratic game plan. It was no small surprise that respected former Republican State Senator Laird Noh of Kimberly endorsed Allred right out of the box and praised his bi-partisan consensus building skills. Not a bad start, but only a start. Woody Allen famously said that 90% of life is simply showing up. Ninety percent of politics may be showing up at the right time. Is the timing right in Idaho for a new kind of Democrat? Or, do tough times like the present argue for continuing the politics and personalities that Idahoans have grown comfortable with for 15 years? Such questions make politics winter's best spectator sport. Tomorrow: A half dozen things to watch as an Otter-Allred race unfolds

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Media Matters

Rupert and the Gray Lady More proof this week of the fundamental changes taking place in the newspaper business. David Carr, a media commentator for The New York Times - the Gray Lady of American journalism -gives voice to what many media traditionalists have either observed first-hand or expected would happen. Stop the presses: Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal - another great American newspaper - has turned to the right in its news and analysis. At least that is Carr's assessment. The response from the Journal is fascinating. The dueling statements from editors Robert Thomson of the WSJ and Bill Keller of the NYT read like the transcript for a Fox News shout down. Here is the important point, I think, and the accelerating trend: the news business is fragmenting into a range of providers of "content" built around distinctive perspectives - political, social, economic. If the Journal has become the national conservative newspaper, there are those who would argue that the Times has long been the nation's liberal paper. Perhaps both papers should just admit the obvious. Of course, a press baron like Murdoch, schooled in the tough, partisan style of British journalism, is going to put his conservative mark on the Journal. If Murdoch understands anything, he understands market segmentation. He knows there is a vast audience for point-of-view news and he will get there first with the most. He is increasingly serving up British-style journalism for an American market. Fifty to 75 years ago, papers like the Chicago Tribune, published by the isolationist, Republican Colonel Robert McCormick - the publisher modestly dubbed the Trib "the World's Greatest Newspaper" - and New York's short-lived PM, a left of center paper bankrolled by the millionaire Marshall Field, were unabashedly point-of-view. These papers reported favorably on their friends and assaulted their enemies, often in front page editorials. Once, after a Tribune story spoke favorably of a U.S. Senator McCormick disliked, the publisher cabled - no email in the 1930's - his Washington bureau asking if reporters there intended to continue to serve as press agents for the Senator. They didn't. We may be inevitably headed back to a much earlier day in American journalism when every newspaper was partisan and all the "news" came with a distinct point of view. Alexander Hamilton had his own newspaper, so did Jefferson, and everyone in the 1930's knew that McCormick's Tribune was anti-Roosevelt. It was his point of view. Was it always fair? No. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. Did it sell papers? McCormick created a media empire built on his personal perspective and his skill as a innovator in the delivery of information. Like Rupert Murdoch, the Colonel understood his market. Murdoch, as with many things, may just be ahead of the pack as American newspapers go back to the future. In fact, having a distinct point of view may be the salvation of print journalism in the digital age.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama's Nobel Speech

Read This Speech... Love him or not, just as a matter of substance, one has to be impressed - time and again - with Barack Obama's ability to craft and deliver a great speech. His latest effort, the speech to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, was a moment on the world stage that was ripe with irony. The prize for peace going to the guy who just ordered up more troops for the war in Afghanistan. An award for major accomplishment to a young president in his first year in office. Obama did what a speech coach would have counseled: he admitted the obvious and took the irony head on. Here is some reaction: from Slate; and Dan Balz at the Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. Even Sarah Palin said nice things. This speech will be read for a long time to come, perhaps as the Obama Doctrine. Not since Ronald Reagan, who Obama noticed in the speech, has a president been this gifted as a communicator.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Saving The Forest By Burning It

Restoring Fire to the Landscape A fine series of articles focused on a smarter approach to wild land fire management is rolling out this week in the Arizona Daily Star.

Reporter Tom Beal has three stories and a series of sidebars about some of the latest thinking on fire management and the challenge of altering the long-cherished notion that all fire is bad and must be banished from the ecosystem.

The series is reminiscent of work done over the last several years by the Andrus Center for Public Policy, including the Center's report - The Fires Next Time. Following a major conference in 2003, the Andrus Center report made the case that changes in public policy must be accelerated in the direction of managing forest ecosystems more aggressively, including restoring fire to it rightful place in the management mix.

A good deal of the Center's fire work has been informed by Stephen Pyne, perhaps the nation's foremost historian of fire. Pyne keynoted that 2003 Andrus conference and he continues to call for more rapid change in fire policy.

Pyne wrote recently in the context of major southern California fires: "Like economic transactions, fire is not a substance but a reaction – an exchange. It takes its character from its context. It synthesizes its surroundings. Its power derives from the power to propagate. To control fire, you control its setting, and you control wild fire by substituting tame fire."

Most of the smartest people who think and plan for handling wild land fire know that we "control wild fire by substituting tame fire," but the process of changing a hundred years of policy does not move, unfortunately, as quickly as a western wild fire.

By the way, while Steve Pyne is a celebrated author of much excellent material on fire, he has also authored a marvelous little book on the majestic Grand Canyon in northern Arizona where he spent time as a firefighter. How the Canyon Became Grand is a great read for anyone who loves that awesome ditch.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Weekend Potpourri

Second Acts, Italian Justice, Politics & Crime and Small College Football It has been correctly said that in politics your friends die and your enemies accumulate. This is perhaps particularly true for a politician attempting to make a comeback after being out of the game for a while. Voters have short memories for good accomplishments and the bad odor of political failure tends to linger like week-old fish. And your friends die. Nonetheless, four former governors are trying to accomplish the comeback, including Oregon's John Kitzhaber. The New York Times has a wrap-up that is good reading for those who remember guys like Terry Brandstad in Iowa, Roy Barnes in Georgia and Governor Moon Beam - Jerry Brown - reborn as the Democratic front runner at the Hotel California. Italian Justice - Sort Of The Times' Tim Egan has written at least twice before on the bizarre case of 22-year old Amanda Knox of Seattle who was convicted this week in Italy after a long, sensational murder trial. Egan is convinced Knox is a victim of the weird Italian justice system. If you have followed the case, you will want to read his take which he composed just before the verdict was returned. I suspect we have not heard the last of this one. Huckabee the Former The tragic murders of four Pierce County Washington law enforcement officers may get some sense of closure on Tuesday when the officers are memorialized in Seattle. The political fallout for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who commuted the sentence of the alleged killer of the officers, Maurice Clemmons, is no where near closure. The Daily Beast's John Batchelor has a tough read on Huckabee and I tend to agree. Prediction: no Huckabee win the Iowa Caucus in 2012. He won't be in the race. Football on a Smaller Screen With Boise State and Oregon now headed to major bowl appearances, a moment of reflection on another outstanding football program in the region - little Carroll College in Helena, Montana - is in order. The Saints lost their bid for a return national title on a snow covered field in Helena this weekend, but what a program and what a school. The Saints have won NAIA national titles in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. Not bad for a school that is really known for its academic excellence. Have a good weekend and stay warm.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Big George

An Idaho Political Character My father had a marvelous sense of humor and he would often joke about the little town where he grew up in western Nebraska. Dad would say, "Most little towns have a town character. Where I grew up, the characters had a town." Like Dad's hometown, Idaho hasn't limited itself to one political character. We've had more than our share over the years. One-term Senator Glen Taylor comes to mind. A singing cowboy before he got into politics, Taylor ran for Vice President in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket, lost his re-election, tried twice more to return to Washington, and settled for inventing the "Taylor Topper," a toupee line that made him a millionaire. Now, that's a character. No list of Idaho characters would be complete, of course, without Steve Symms, a libertarian apple farmer from Caldwell who parlayed his charm and quotable one-liners about guns and government into stints in both the House and Senate. The former editorial page editor of the Lewiston Tribune, Bill Hall, used to joke that when Symms was starting out in politics, Bill would regularly refer to him as "an engaging kook." Hall said, the late, great Idaho Statesman political writer, John Corlett, had to set him straight. Symms, who went to Washington to "take a bite out of government" and stayed on to lobby, was, according to Corlett, more kook than engaging. Ol' John should have known, he covered Idaho's political characters all the way back to William Borah. There are plenty of other political characters in Idaho's history but, if forced to nominate just one for "character in chief," it would be former Congressman George Hansen who was back in the news the last few days. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that Hansen owed $700,000 to people he defrauded in a years-old case involving an investment scheme. Considering that charges of financial misconduct dogged him for years, its not too surprising that George Hansen reached the front page again with a story about financial misconduct. Hansen has been out of public office since 1985, and anyone new to the state or its politics since then would be hard pressed to appreciate Hansen, the character, or understand his Ron Paul-like appeal over a long period in Idaho. Long before there were Tea Parties or Birthers or Ron Paul, there was Big George, or George the Dragon Slayer, prowling the Second District of Idaho and teeing off against the federal government. Hansen ran twice unsuccessfully for the United States Senate, but somehow managed 14 years, spread over three decades, in the House of Representatives. Hansen wasn't the first, nor last, to get elected time and again by trashing the federal government, but he may have been one of the more successful. For someone who spent a good part of his life in government, he sure hated government. Not to be unkind to the Tetonia native, and he was hard not to like on a personal basis and I interviewed him many times on television, I cannot recall a single legislative accomplishment during his time in Washington. He did generate lots of headlines, however, as a highly quotable, outspoken foe of the IRS and OSHA, among other federal agencies, and he perennially turned up on the list of "most conservative members" of Congress. Then-Rexburg college professor Richard Stallings defeated Hansen in 1984, while the incumbent congressman was a convicted felon. Hansen had failed to disclose certain information on required disclosure forms, but even with that heavy baggage hanging from his big frame, Hansen lost re-election by only 170 votes. It is still the closest Congressional race in Idaho history. The Spokesman-Review's Betsy Russell has a good take on Hansen and his appeal. For one thing, at 6-feet-8 and close to 300 pounds, the guy dominated a room. Big George was an aggressive retail politician; shaking hands, slapping backs, smiling and waving and moving on to the next voter. With his breathless, impassioned speaking style, Hansen could deliver a stem winder. One of his great assets was his attractive, articulate wife, Connie. Hansen often tellingly joked that Connie should have been the member of Congress. Heads would nod in agreement. As a conservative Republican, Hansen also benefitted from having his political base in normally Democratic Pocatello. Hansen was once the mayor of Alameda, an Idaho town that no longer exists thanks to it having been incorporated years ago into Pocatello. One of the last times I saw him he was boarding an airplane in Pocatello with two of those big brief bags that lawyers use when they are headed into court. But George had his cases stuffed full of his anti-IRA tome. I think he must have been on a book tour. One of Hansen's most memorable stunts was to travel to Iran during the embassy hostage crisis there in 1979. Much to the chagrin of the Carter Administration, he set up shop and tried to personally intercede with the Iranian government. Nothing came of it, but he generated a lot of media attention, including, I admit, a very expensive, half-hour satellite uplink interview that I conducted with him. Considering the perilous financial condition of public television in those days, I'm still not sure how my boss let that happen. Then again, George Hansen was always great copy. Unfortunately, while the political characters usually do make the best copy, it is not often that they make the best public officials.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Obama's War

War is the unfolding of miscalculations - Barbara Tuchman I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, "Don't try to do too much." I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I've watched President Obama ensure that America's longest war - our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan - will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama's war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision - for good or bad - that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much. A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president's critics from the right - George Will - suggests, we won't like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying. An Idaho Perspective on Limits Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country's foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920's. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970's. The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week. Borah's influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church's time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power. It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president's course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country's military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all. In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn't our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much. Other Northwesterners of the past - the Senate's greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon's pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield - counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time. None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations. Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world's most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We'll find out. The British and Russians found out before us. As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August - the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War - wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy. Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can "nation build," where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned. Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all. One of the great "what ifs" of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam. Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We'll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests. Kennedy once said this: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again - I hope I'm wrong - confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America's military - motivated, trained and determined as it is - can do everything. As I said, I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


He Really is - Quote, Unquote - Fantastic OK, I was dubious. An old style animated feature length film of the children's book by Roald Dahl. How special can that be? Trust me - it's special. With George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray bringing the fuzzy puppets to life, you find that you're inhabiting a very special world somewhere between the human and the animal. Mr. Fox wears a necktie to work, writes a column for a newspaper, but lives in a hole (and after trading up, in a tree) eats like an animal and, well, hunts chickens like a fox. This is a rare movie where the trailer actually does justice to the film. For insight into how the movie was made, check out Terry Gross' - am I over using this word - fantastic NPR interview with director Wes Anderson. The color, smart dialogue, the music - all are really good. The movie may even serve to resurrect the fading - to say the least - fame of the 1960's group The Bobby Fuller Four. The kids will love the animals. The rest of us will identify with references to real estate deals, unheeded advice from lawyers, anxious teenagers and a character in mid-life crisis who just happens to be a fox. I thought it was fantastic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

American Messiahs

The Long Line From Huey Long to...Lou Dobbs? In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt's chief political operative and campaign manager, Postmaster General James A. Farley, commissioned a public opinion poll. Farley, a canny New York pol, was already thinking about his boss's re-election more than a year away and was worried about a populist assault on FDR and the New Deal. Farley's secret survey confirmed that he had reason to worry. As Huey Long's best biographer, the great historian T. Harry Williams, wrote in his fascinating book about Long, who was both Louisiana's Governor and a United States Senator: "The result [of the poll] was disquieting. It disclosed that if Huey himself ran he would poll three to four million and maybe six million popular votes. Moreover, his support was not restricted too the South but was nationwide. He would, in fact, attract as big a percentage of the votes in the industrial centers of the East as he would in the rural areas, and in a close election he could tip the balance to the Republicans." That same year, 1935, a curious little book - American Messiahs - appeared and its contents were eagerly consumed by most everyone who closely followed politics. The book offered chapter length profiles of a collection of "messiahs;" political figures who some saw - and who saw themselves - as saviors of the country in a time of mass unemployment and economic depression. Huey Long was one of the "messiahs." Long appealed to millions as an advocate for the little guy and a vicious critic of the fat cats. He was also a terrific communicator. Old age pension advocate Dr. Francis Townsend, his mass movement helped spur the creation of Social Security, was also identified as a "messiah," as was Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who brilliantly built a national following using his rich Irish brogue to push an anti-Semitic, populist message. Each of the "messiahs" had both the potential to command a national audience and impact presidential politics. The author of American Messiahs, originally identified only as The Unofficial Observer, was in fact a well-connected political columnist John Franklin Carter. Carter wrote in the introduction to his book: "I regard them [the messiahs] as indispensable irritants, since they supply the motive-power for essential change and because their manifest exaggerations counterbalance the intemperance of those conservative who regard Roosevelt as a dangerous revolutionary and the gradual reforms of the New Deal as akin to Communism." Some of this has a familiar ring this many years later, even as today the most profound criticism of the still-new president comes from the right not the left. We'll never know if Long would have followed his instincts and mounted a third-party challenge to Roosevelt. The Kingfish was murdered in a hallway of the Louisiana statehouse and died on September 10, 1935. His reported final words - "Lord, don't let me die. I have so much to do." - may offer a clue to his ultimate ambition. Long had already prepared a campaign manifesto that he entitled My First Days in the White House. A third-party populist movement did come together, in a way, in 1936. A radical North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, with Coughlin's support, mounted a national campaign hoping to rally those millions who had viewed Huey Long as their messiah. Lemke polled less than a million votes and Franklin Roosevelt went on to win re-election in an historic landslide. Roosevelt won that election, in part, by out flanking the populist ranters and directly attacking the big business, Wall Street and newspaper moguls who were united against New Deal programs like public works projects and Social Security. "Never before in all our history," Roosevelt fumed, "have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me - and I welcome their hatred." FDR served up political red meat for an anxious, hungry country. A New Messiah...or Messiahs Now comes word that former CNN anchor and anti-immigrant crusader Lou Dobbs is weighing a possible run for either the White House or the United States Senate from New Jersey. The bombastic Dobbs, it seems to me, fits snugly into the line of blustery populists that stretches back to Huey Long and even farther. There is a populist rage underlying much of the rhetoric of ranters like Dobbs, radio and TV talker Glenn Beck, and even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. These modern messiahs tap into a deep reservoir of distrust for big institutions and "the elite." And, as Long, Coughlin and others did years ago from the left, Dobbs, Beck and Palin offer from the right - in another time of economic turmoil - homey, simple, easy to digest solutions to life's complex problems. Even with his communication skills honed at the alter of cable news talk, Lou Dobbs is no Huey Long. Long, in the early 1930's, was developing a genuine base of support in the south and elsewhere. He also had a brilliant sense of humor and, unlike a talk show host, he actual got elected and produced new roads, hospitals and free textbooks. What Big Lou shares most with the Kingfish is a cultivated disdain for politicians of both parties. "The only difference I ever found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership," Long said, "is that one of them is skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the neck down." Now, that was effective communication. Long also had his book - Every Man a King - to promote his Share the Wealth philosophy. His radio broadcasts were so popular that when Portland, Oregon station KGW refused to carry one of his talks the station's audience rebelled. Sarah Palin now has her book - will Dobbs be far behind - and while she and the book, according to most polls, aren't playing well with a majority of Americans - particularly women - the book is a runaway best seller. Palin's folksy style does touch a raw, populist nerve with many and the media cannot get enough of her. The famous southern, progressive journalist Hodding Carter was correct when he called Huey Long a "demagogue" and its tempting for some today to politically dismiss the current messiah crop as a curious, passing fad; part of an out-of-touch fringe that just happens to have ready access a microphone. Easy to dismiss them intellectually, but while economic uncertainty dominates the lives of many Americans, not so easy to dismiss them politically. Demagogues, by their very nature, attract attention and the media loves to cover them. The more outrageous the rhetoric the better. I suspect most Republicans would confess privately to wanting nothing to do with Lou or Sarah. They shudder at having them as the face or voice of a great party. Most Democrats said the same thing - privately - about Long, Townsend and Coughlin in the 1930's, but eventually that changed. Franklin Roosevelt found that he could not easily dismiss the messiahs of the mid-1930's. Rather, after attempting to co-opt many of them, he determined that the best way to deal with "messiahs" was to defeat them politically. For the most part he did; taking them head on, including appropriating some of the best features of their reform agendas. There may be a political lesson in that for Democrats and Republicans alike in 2010 and beyond.