Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Battle of the Rio de la Plata The first significant naval battle of World War II took place not in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, but in the Rio de la Plata that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The battle featured one of the more usual events of the entire war, the scuttling by a German captain of his own ship. In the late summer of 1939, the German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee left home waters on a mission to disrupt British commerce in the South Atlantic. The big ship was very fast and very well armed and over the course of several months preyed on shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, eventually sinking nine merchant ships. Before long the Royal Navy put its own squadrons on the hunt for Graf Spee and when the German ship turned into the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in December 1939 the battle was engaged. Graf Spee was damaged and one British ship badly damaged during the engagement. The German Captain Hans Langsdorff put into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs, while the British squadron waited off shore for his next move. Forced to depart Montevideo under international maritime law after only 24 hours, Langsdorff put off most of his 1,000 man crew, piloted the big ship about three miles off shore and detonated a series of explosive charges that scuttled the ship. The captain and a small contingent of sailors made for Buenos Aires in the ship´s launch where they arrived two days later. The Graf Spee burned for four days before settling, not entirely submerged, in the huge estuary of the River Plate. The German crew was eventually detained in Buenos Aires. Under circumstances that are still disputed, three days after he arrived in Argentina, Captain Langsdorff wrapped himself in a German naval ensign and shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel room. He is buried in the Argentine capitol. One explanation for the captain´s suicide might be that Langsdorff felt that he was honorably taking responsibility for the loss of his ship. Other speculation centers on whether the Captain disregarded orders or whether the Graf Spee was really seriously damaged and might have fought through the British squadron to the open sea. Remnants of the German ship scuttled in the Rio de la Plata are displayed today in the harbor at Montevideo. It is claimed that descendants of some of the German sailors still live in the area. The battle in the River Plate is a fascinating detail of the role South America played in the war. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as the trade and political centers of neutral countries, must have seen a great deal of intrigue and espionage. Both countries remained neutral, in part, to further their extensive trade with both sides. Later in the war, for example, Argentina thwarted U.S. efforts to create formal Latin American support for the Allied war effort. The move deeply angered Secretary of State Cordell Hull and likely moved the already pro-German Argentine military more in the direction of the Nazis. It makes me think of the great film Casablanca and its timeless take on the intrigue and chaos in an exotic city during wartime. I wonder about the Rick´s and Inspector Renault´s of Latin America and how that awful piece of 20th Century history played out for them.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
The Grand Cataratas In the far northeastern corner of Argentina, where the border bumps up against Paraguay and Brazil, is one of the most spectacular sights you could ever hope to see. If the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is, well, grand then the falls at Iguazu are every bit as unique and impossible to capture in words or pictures. About 275 individual water falls dump 5,000 cubic meters per second of water over the falls. Vastly more water than Niagara. Victoria Falls in Africa is higher than Iguazu, but the massive sweep of the Argentine falls has to make it the water fall in the world. Since 1934 the area has been, wisely for Argentina and the rest of us, protected as a National Park. The park, the first in Argentina, and the surrounding subtropical rain forest is also a World Heritage Site and one of South America's top tourist destinations. The river system that produces the falls drains an area comparable to the Amazon or the Mississippi. The system eventually drains to the vast Rio de la Plata separating Uruguay and Argentina. I have never seen so much water. The park is very well maintained with access to the falls provided by an ingenious series of metal catwalks that allows a visitor to cross the many river channels and literally stand atop the great cataratas. Boat tours also travel up the river for a down below look at the falls. Yes, it is wet down there. Very, very wet. Sort of an E ticket ride at Disneyland, but conducted in the rain forest. I have always thought the Grand Canyon was the single most impressive natural site I have ever seen. Iguazu Falls is every bit as grand. See this place if you ever get the chance. And good for the Argentines for taking such good care of such a remarkable and sensitive place.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Dempsey vs. Firpo - A Fight For All Time Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina, he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting. In 1923, Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth. In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed "the wild bull of the Pampas," was handsome, strapping, 6' 2" heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was. Within a few seconds of the first round, Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept pn punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table. That moment - Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring - is captured in George Bellow's famous painting. Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slug fest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statutes have been erected in his memory. The Bellow's painting hasn't hurt either man's reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you could get a beer and shot, I know what would hang behind the bar. There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Politics the World Over Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is not really a movie star, she just plays one in the bizarre world of Argentine politics. As the first woman elected president of Argentina - she succeeded her husband who remains in Congress - she does command a certain rock star celebrity. The papers in Buenos Aires right now are full of President Cristina's worries about impending British oil exploration off the coast of the Falkland Islands, er, make that the Isles Malvinas in the south Atlantic. Some might remember that Argentina and Great Britain engaged in a deadly little shooting war over those islands in 1982. The then-Argentine military government, hoping to divert public attention from its awful human rights record and inability to improve the economy, launched an invasion of what the Argentine's still consider their territory. Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" and not willing to look weak in a showdown with Argentina, of all countries, dispatched the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy and several boatloads of national pride several thousand miles to the southern hemisphere to keep the desolate specks of land that make up the Falklands in the hands of the Brits. Now, the British, no doubt sure that they settled the matter years ago, want to explore for oil in the area. Some estimates place the reserves in the billions of barrels. Silly Brits. Argentine maps still claim the territory - ergo it is really Argentine oil - even if most of the rest of the world thinks the whole affair a little silly; a Latin version of The Mouse That Roared. Argentina plans to raise the oil exploration issue - "anachronistic colonization" one Argentine pol called it - at the United Nations. And not to put too fine a point on the dispute, it is being suggested in Buenos Aires that maybe British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hoping to trigger an international incident to help his flagging standing in front of a national elections in Britain now expected in May. The thought occurs that perhaps President CFK, as she is called in Argentina, also suffering in the polls, in a nasty dispute with her own vice president, and not very popular, may too appreciate the distraction of a good, old fashioned international dust-up. Just to put this in some context, one of the daily demonstrations last week in Buenos Aires's main square - where Juan and Eva Peron used to rally the faithful - was a protest of Malvinas war veterans who were calling for better benefits. That little south Atlantic war back in 1982 may be mostly forgotten elsewhere. Not in Argentina. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borge once referred to the Falkland's War as "two bald men arguing over a comb," but "wagging the dog" has long been good politics the world over. Expect diplomacy to prevail - eventually. For one thing, one Argentine writer estimates that the "powerful" Argentine Air Force might be able to get all of ten aircraft off the tarmac. Still, and more seriously, Argentina is threatening to hold up shipping in the area to halt the British moves. Also expect, based upon the reaction in the land that still lays claim to the Malvinas, that a lot of newspaper ink is going to be spilled for the sake of national honor and, of course, politics. In the British press, CFK is dismissively called "the botox Evita," but she knows a good role when she sees one. Drama is part of the president's job description in Argentina.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
The World in Balance It is impossible, I think, to kneel down to eye level with a penguin and not be impressed - awed even - with power of ol' Mother Nature to put the whole world proper perspective. On a tiny, rocky island in the Beagle Channel off the coast of Argentina, about 8,000 penguins have settled in for their summer break in the southern hemisphere. Some of them spent the winter getting to this remote birthing room from as far away as Antarctica, 1,000 kilometers further south. The happy penguins we saw this week seem remarkably tolerant of humans, although the government here is careful to allow no more than 20 visitors at a time to their island and the visits - like to any maternity room - are short and quiet. Sudden movements are discouraged. Don't mess with the penguins, in other words. The day of our visit was beautifully sunny, warm and not too windy. Most of the chubby penguins seemed to enjoy basking in the warm, summer sun of the very South Atlantic with an occasional quick swim to bring lunch back for the kids. The penguins, mostly the black and white Magellanic penguin, happily posed for pictures. They should have been running a photo concession. They could easily have collected boat fare back to winter quarters. On this perfect February day, nature seemed in perfect balance. That is, of course, a momentary, human illusion. The glaciers nearby are retreating. The Antarctic ice is shrinking. Whatever one thinks of the global climate change, it can't be lost on any of us that places like this tiny, rocky island off the coast of Argentina are indicators of the health of our own lives on the blue planet. For one day it all seemed in order, in balance. I'm already thinking about coming back for another visit. I hope the penguins feel the same, next year and for thousands more.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Andes + Ocean + Islands = Spectacular I have always thought some of the world's great scenery was in the American West. The northern Rockies in Glacier National Park in Montana and the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho are truly world class. For maritime views there is little to compare with the San Juan Islands between Washington State and British Columbia. However, having spent a couple of days tramping around "the end of the world" has me convinced that the southern tip of Argentina - Tierra del Fuego - must rank as one of the world's most spectacular pieces of real estate. The Argentine's have tried a thousands schemes of create an industrial economy here. Sheep ranching in the 1890's, a massive prison in the early 20th Century and in the 1950's Juan Peron decreed that a naval base be located in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. More recently, port facilities have been developed. Still it is the incredible scenery that brings most of the visitors and generates most of the pesos. Argentina has struggled to create a modern industrial society in a vast land with limited traditional natural resources. What Patagonia has in abundance - breathtaking scenery, penguins, birds and solitude - may be even more valuable in an increasingly industrialized 21st Century. The end of the world feels more like the beginning of the world we will increasingly value. It is not all that easy to get here, but it will be impossible to forget and irresistible not to return.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Waiting for Godot...or Delta The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them. There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis's poignant piece about her life and work: "Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31." Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life - former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci - are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls "the year of the crook." At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic. A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a "crippling" one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I'm assured, when all returns to "normal." I have faith. Still, I couldn't help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett's absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: "I don't seem to be able... (long hesitation) to depart." I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to "normal." I just know it.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Changing Planes on the Way to... There's an old story that if you're headed for hell you're going to have to change planes in Atlanta. True, except when its snowing. When that happens you can't get there from here. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport claims to be the "world's busiest" and, in the main, it seems a remarkably well run place. Vast, imposing, but well planned and operated, that is until the rare inch or two of snow arrives in north Georgia. Apparently snow was on the ground in 49 states on Friday. Only Hawaii was the holdout, but unfortunately I wasn't headed in that direction. A little bit of the white stuff, about the amount that would barely freshen up a ski slope in the northwest, virtually shut down ATL on Friday. Sitting around considering your fate during a "weather delay" provides LOTS of time to consider the human condition. Mostly that condition can be humorous, even amid a thousand cancelled flights. OK, so you have to look for the humor. A Scotsman in the bar, awaiting his flight to Amsterdam and on to Glasgow - my guess, he's still waiting - asked a young woman on a nearby stool if anyone had ever told her she looked like the actress Salma Hayak. She wisely didn't respond. She also didn't look like Salma Hayak. During a stop at one of those typical airport shops - one of those places that carries watches, jewelry, etc. - a woman enters talking on her cell: "I've found something cheap," she says, "I think this is what I'm looking for - cheap." The salesperson glances over a with a smile and mouths under her breath, "cheap, not in this place." I've long ago quit checking luggage on any flight. I'm a straight on, carry on kind of guy. I figure given all the things that can - and often do - go wrong with air travel, why not eliminate at least one complication. I never check. The folks who did check on Friday wished they hadn't. One guy sees my rolling bag and asks how I'd managed to retrieve it in and around all the delayed and cancelled flights. He looked absolutely envious when I told him. Maybe I should have offered him a clean pair of socks. I saw most of the world in Atlanta on Friday. Most folks were pretty well mannered, a little stressed, tired and confused, but rolling with the travel punches. There was lots to see in Atlanta on Friday, but no Salma Hayak sitings - darn. Bet she doesn't check either.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Anatomy of a Recall, er, Recalls David Letterman's monologue hit a little close to home the other night. Dave said that things had gotten so bad at Toyota that the "navigation lady was praying." Indeed, prayer may be the next strategy at Toyota. At least it would be a strategy. Whatever happens next, Toyota could do well to follow the lead of the navigation lady. She is the best thing about my Toyota. The navigation lady is always polite, authoritative, just a bit assertive in that favorite aunt kind of way, and she is always well prepared, unlike the top brass at Toyota. When you take a wrong turn, against her advice, the navigation lady will gently remind you to "make a legal U-turn" and get back on track. Better than prayer, Toyota response to its current crisis of quality requires a legal U-turn. Listen to the navigation lady. Toyota has violated all three of what I think of as the basic rules of handling a crisis. The company's response has been consistently ineffective, slow and lacking a message. Three strikes. Until very recently, Toyota failed to take charge of the crisis, admit the obvious and directly and convincingly apologize. It seems like no one in charge at the big company asked the fundamental question that should always be asked in a crisis situation - what is the right thing to do to protect the public? Answering that question honestly and then acting in the public interest is almost always the surest way to protect the corporate reputation and maintain public trust. The image of Toyota's CEO getting ambushed at a swanky Swiss resort during the world economic summit, followed by his escape in a sleek Audi (with good brakes no doubt) only helped drive the narrative of a company lacking real leadership and unwilling to assume responsibility for serious quality shortcomings. A brand as resilient as Toyota's could have withstood an early, frank admission of lack of performance followed by a heartfelt apology and immediate corrective action. Instead, the response was halting, ineffective and forced. Most folks are forgiving, even of corporate CEO's, if they believe they are getting the honest story and that contrition is genuine. Toyota dented the fender on this basic requirement. Toyota has lacked a consistent, believable message. Communication 101 here. A consistent message from the beginning of the crisis; a message that addressed what went wrong, what needs to be done to fix it and restating the company's commitment to safety and quality would have helped shape the public - and Letterman's - response. Perhaps Toyota should have immediately invited third-party supervision of its processes and aggressive engaged the regulators as it engineered a technical response to the crisis. Instead, customers and the public got what looks a lot like the stonewall. And, Toyota has made the classic mistake in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it has failed the test of speed. Speed kills. In the age of instant communication, speed kills bad news or a lack of speed feeds the flames of crisis. Toyota's response has been so slow and so defensive that it helped spawn a whole series of stories, like the lead piece in last Sunday's New York Times, that only fed the notion that Toyota's reputation for quality is a myth. With Toyota failing to provide a quick, credible counter narrative - no recognition of the need for speed - the crisis has kept growing. Toyota will probably pick its way through this mess, but it will take some time and the damage will last a while. I'll keep paying close attention to the navigation lady, at least for a while, but I may need some convincing to take a chance on another Toyota. The company is paying the cost of incredibly sloppy handling of big and very public troubles. In the modern world, a precise, quick and genuine response to a crisis is the only way to avoid an even bigger crisis.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Borah: A Power in the Senate Seventy years after his death, William E. Borah has become a shadowy historic figure in his adopted state of Idaho. During the nearly 33 years he spent in the United States Senate, however, Borah - called the Lion of Idaho - was a hugely influential figure in American politics, even though some of his contemporaries lamented his unwillingness, at times, to assume an even larger role. Borah was a creature of the Senate and his times and the Senate was a different place in the first decades of the 20th Century than it has become today. Many senators tended to see themselves more as national representatives rather than home state advocates and the Senate was, in many respects, the ultimate political platform; a place to make a national reputation and a long career. Borah did both. Some interesting details of Borah's long career: Borah never got along particularly well with President Calvin Coolidge, even though both were Republicans. One story has Borah being asked to the White House in 1924 where Coolidge was hoping to entice the Idahoan's support in that year's presidential election. Coolidge asked whether Borah would consider a place on the national ticket, to which the Senator reportedly replied, "Which place, Mr. President?" Borah ultimately rejected overtures to become vice president and refused to make the nominating speech at the GOP convention for Silent Cal. Borah exercised great influence over a long period of time on appointments to the Supreme Court. In 1932, he played a pivotal role in convincing Herbert Hoover to nominate Benjamin Cardozo to the Court. Cardozo is now widely considered one of the greatest justices. In 1937, Borah played a huge, behind the scenes role in derailing Franklin Roosevelt's scheme to "pack" the Supreme Court by adding as many as six new justices. At a critical moment, Borah prevailed upon elderly Justice Willis Van Devanter, one of the Court's staunch conservatives and a neighbor of Borah's, to tender his resignation. The move, quietly engineered in personal conversation, helped undermine FDR's plans by presenting the president with chance to appoint a liberal to the court. At a time when the charge of being "soft on communism" was every bit as damaging as it was in more recent times, Borah was an early and long-time advocate for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and the United States did not extend formal diplomatic recognition until 1933. Borah called for recognition in the early 1920's. Borah's reputation for independence and bipartisanship was greatly respected. In 1924, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat, was indicted on corruption charges. Many in the Senate saw the indictment as nothing more than a trumped up charge aimed at intimidating Wheeler who was conducting a high profile investigation of the Justice Department and corrupt Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Borah lead a bipartisan Senate investigation of the charges against Wheeler and concluded he was not guilty of anything except looking into Daugherty's shady dealings. With little dissent, the Senate adopted the carefully crafted report. Wheeler was later also found not guilty by a Montana jury and Borah and Wheeler cemented a lifetime friendship. When it appeared that Borah might face a tough re-election in Idaho in 1936, and that the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt would help Borah's challenger, Wheeler publicly repudiated FDR's meddling in Borah's race and pledged to campaign for his Republican friend. Talk about bipartisanship. In 1932, a well-known Washington reporter, Ray Tucker, published what became a very popular political book with the unforgettable title - Sons of the Wild Jackass. The title was a reference to a remark that New Hampshire Republican Senator George Moses had made when referring to the independent, progressive element in American politics. It was not meant as a compliment. Tucker's book contained chapter length profiles of 15 of the "jackasses," including Borah. Tucker's opening sentence regarding Borah is perhaps the best single description of the great Idaho senator. "There are four distinct political factions in the United States," Tucker wrote, "Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William Edgar Borah of Idaho." William E. Borah served longer in Washington, D.C. than any other Idahoan. He chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee for eight years, a role that made him an international figure. He dominated state politics, not by heading a political machine, but by the power of his personality and his carefully cultivated reputation for integrity and independence.
Monday, February 8, 2010
William E. Borah, U.S. Senate - Idaho June 29, 1865 - January 19, 1940 A little more than 70 years ago, arguably the most famous political figure Idaho has ever produced - Senator William E. Borah - came home for the last time. Following a memorial service in the United States Senate that President Franklin Roosevelt attended, a funeral train carried the "Lion of Idaho" home to Boise.
Borah lay in state in the Capitol in Boise as thousand filed past his casket. Burial followed at Boise's Morris Hill Cemetery where the Borah memorial sits prominently near the center of the city's largest cemetery.Born at the end of the Civil War and coming of age during a time when Idaho was among the last frontiers in America, the brilliant lawyer-turned-politician lived during some of the country's most turbulent times. Events touched him and vice versa, from the labor violence in the Coeur d'Alenes (Borah prosecuted labor leader Big Bill Haywood for murdering Borah's good friend former Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905), the First World War (he reluctantly supported American involvement), the League of Nations (he helped lead the opposition), the Great Depression and the outbreak of a second war in Europe. Borah, a progressive Republican, championed non-intervention in foreign affairs and regulation of monopoly at home. He was only seriously challenged for re-election once, in 1936, when incumbent Democratic Governor C. Ben Ross took him on. Allegedly FDR's political operatives had encouraged Ross even though Borah had remained on friendly terms with the president and supported many of his New Deal initiatives. Borah, drawing on bipartisan support and a well-earned reputation for independence, decisively turned back the challenge and ultimately Roosevelt stayed out of the contest. In 1937, FDR toured the West and, during a stop in Boise, the just re-elected Borah introduced the just re-elected Roosevelt in front of the State Capitol in Boise. A wonderful picture of that event shows the president seated in the back seat of a big touring car, with Borah standing nearby at the radio microphones. Borah deserves to be remembered for many reasons. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he advocated naval disarmament and fathered a rather idealistic notion about outlawing war. As a westerner, he championed western reclamation projects. As a classic liberal, Borah, in the style of Jefferson, was a life-long advocate of the small farmer and shopkeeper. According to most accounts, he was also one of the greatest orators - on par with Daniel Webster or John C. Calhoun - to ever grace the Senate. Most of all, I think, Borah deserves to be remembered - beyond the high school in Boise and the state's tallest mountain in the Lemhi's that carry his name- for his sense of what being a Senator is all about. Borah was a jealous protector of the Senate' prerogatives. He neither took orders from the president, of either party, nor blindly opposed him. Rather, Borah was a passionate defender of the Senate’s role, unique in the American system, as challenger of all concentrated power - in business or in government. In a lesson for our times, he should be remembered, more than one hundred years after he entered the Senate and 70 years after his death, as an opponent of presidents of both parties that pushed too far the power of the executive. When Borah died in 1940, the news of his death was on the front pages from Berlin to Bombay, from Buenos Aires to Boise. Idaho has not had since, and the times probably won't allow again, another such "citizen of the world." Ironically, when news of his death was carried in the Idaho Statesman in Boise, it was noted that Borah hadn't visited the state he represented in the Senate for two years. Obviously, he was loved at home, deeply respected in the Senate and a power in the country and the world. Further reading on Borah: Leroy Ashby's fine book - The Spearless Leader - recounts Borah's reluctant leadership of the progressive movement of the early years of the 20th Century. The one definitive biography of the great Idaho senator is Marion McKenna's 1961 book simply entitled Borah. Author Stacy Cordery's recent and well-researched biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth - Alice - provides, I think, definitive proof of Borah's long-rumored, long-standing affair with Teddy Roosevelt's outspoken and independent daughter. Cordery makes the convincing case that Alice's only daughter was fathered by Borah who had no children of his own with Mary McConnell Borah, the daughter of Idaho's third governor. Tomorrow...some additional thoughts on the Lion of Idaho.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
A Big Day In the Big Apple for Idaho Basques A terrific new exhibit focused on the history and culture of American Basques - Hidden in Plain Sight - premiered on the hallowed ground of New York's Ellis Island Saturday. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Basque Museum Director Patty Miller (second and third from the right in the photo) helped open what is truly a world-class exhibit in the same rooms where 12 million immigrants passed into the United States from 1892 to 1954. On the far left of the photo is exhibit curator Michael Vogt who did a masterful job of assembling artifacts, oral histories, photos, video and documents to help tell the story of the thousands of Basques who left northern Spain to settle in the United States. Many of those Basques ended up in southwestern Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. The others in the photo are official representatives of the Autonomous Basque government in Spain who contributed financial and moral support to the exhibit project. The notion of American Basques being "hidden in plain sight" is a takeoff on the fact that while Basques have done a remarkable job of assimilating they determinedly maintain language, traditions and culture. Musuem Board President Patti Laciondo wrote about that idea in the Idaho Statesman today. The Basque Museum and Cultural Center has been around for 25 years, but this exhibit vaults a very special Idaho cultural organization far out on the national, even international stage. The National Park Service rotates a limited number of temporary exhibits through Ellis Island on an annual basis in order to compliment the starkly effective and profoundly moving permanent displays in the old building just off the southern shore of Manhattan. It is a singular honor for the Idaho musuem to be asked to mount such an exhibit. The exhibit will stay at Ellis Island through April and then open in Boise at the Basque Museum in September. As many as 300,000 people are expected to take a journey into the Basque story during the exhibit's run in New York. The always entertaining Oinkari dancers performed in cavernous Registry Hall at Ellis Island before the exhibit formally opened Saturday afternoon. The Basque choir from Idaho also performed. About 150 Idahoans made the trip to take part in the Ellis Island opening and many of them had their own stories about fathers, mothers or grand parents who entered the country through the gateway of American immigration. It was impossible not to feel a lump in the throat as the Basque choir - Biotzetik - sang "America the Beautiful," first in Basque then in English, in the place where so many new Americans caught their first glimpse of a new life in the new world. It was a moment that makes one marvel at what a country we have. A "nation of immigrants" in the language of John F. Kennedy, made great and unique in the world by the strength of its diversity. American Basques are a fascinating part of the great American immigrant story, a part that will now, thanks to the work of the Basque Museum and Culutral Center in Idaho, be better known and appreciated around the country and the world.
Friday, February 5, 2010
The Curious Case of Idaho's Identity By now most of the world able to access the Internet, buy a newspaper or listen to the BBC knows that a group of Idaho missionaries is behind bars in Haiti. Just what has happened is - and likely will remain for some time - a mystery. You know, if you have been following the world-wide story, that the eight Idahoans and the two others have been accused of coming dangerously close to trafficking in the shattered lives of the children of earthquake ravaged Haiti. I have no idea what really happened in this troubling case, and I'm suspecting that the generally incompetent government of Haiti has about the same level of understanding. Perhaps the best that can be said is that a group of well-intentioned folks took well-intentioned actions that, when examined in the clear light of day, look pretty unsophisticated, naive, or even in the language of the Third World - imperial, or perhaps imperious. I've been in New York the last couple of days and the Haiti missionary/human trafficking story has been all over the place. [Perhaps as a testament to how much New Yorkers - at least public radio-listening New Yorkers - desire to understand the Haiti-Idaho connection, I appeared this morning on WNYU's "The Takeaway," to provide an "Idaho perspective" on this international story. I had at least a moment's pause speaking for the entire state, but when in New York, hey someone has to speak for us.] Here is one takeaway from the missionary story, and it is all about the curious mindset some of our fellow Americans on the east coast and elsewhere in this diverse land have when they read a headline that says: "Idaho missionaries charged with bad stuff in Haiti..." These fellow citizens wonder just what is it about that strangely shaped western state, home to good potatoes, formerly home to a bunch of crackpot, white supremacists, and headquarters of a growing football dynasty, that such a story could emanate from there? It will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled the country a bit that Idaho is about as well understood as the rules of cricket to most of our fellow countrymen. It is not so much that the state has a bad image as that it has almost no image at all. Or, perhaps more correctly, some folks assume the worst given a generally blank slate to draw upon. In one sense, Idahoans (you could have said the same of Montana in the days of the Unibomber) might say, who cares what others think or the conclusions to which they jump? We have a sense of ourselves. We know what we are about. But, in life and in the "reality" of the 24 hour news cycle, perception matters. There is a perception that Idaho fosters, well, strange things. I wish the world's perception of the state I have called home for 35 years now was more in keeping with reality. For example, I talked at length with a concerned Idahoan last week who was about to leave for his second extended trip to Haiti to see what he can do to improve the availability of clean water and evaluate how to mitigate earthquake damage to prevent long-term environmental degradition to an already badly degraded landscape. I know, I know, man bites dog is news. A narrative of out of control missionaries, fueled by something in the water in Idaho, fits the all-too-common preception of the Gem State. Sad that is, but also true.