Thursday, July 29, 2010

Things of the Past

The Internet Isn't the Same In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt made the long, dangerous journey to Tehran for a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. En route he stopped over in Cairo to huddle with the British Prime Minister and Chiang Kai-shek. The president also did a little sightseeing as he noted in a letter to his long-time assistant Grace Tully. FDR wrote that he had made friends with the Sphinx and, like every president before or since, concluded that "Congress should know her." The lighthearted, intimate letter to Tully is among a new treasure of letters to, from, and about a president that is the subject of a massive collection of books, but about whom we seem to only want to know more. The National Archives gained possession of the 5,000 rarely or never before seen letters, notes and scraps and they most surely will add to the already rich trove of material about the president recently voted the nation's greatest by a group of more than 200 scholars of the presidency. “You actually see F.D.R.’s thought process,” Robert W. Clark, supervisory archivist of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., told the New York Times. “(FDR) never wrote memoirs, he wasn’t a reflective kind of guy. This shows him instinctively making decisions that he knew would be for the betterment of the country and the world,” Clark said. Roosevelt conceived of the modern presidential library and the building and grounds at his home along the Hudson north of New York City is a national treasure. FDR, even without his own diary or memoirs, knew the value of keeping and using an archive. His notion was that all of his principal aides would house their papers at Hyde Park and many did. The collection of materials squirreled away by FDR's devoted assistant Grace Tully will add to the richness of what has long existed. The materials include a letter from Benito Mussolini, pre-war musings from Joseph P. Kennedy about the war in Europe and the documents that coordinated the logistics for Roosevelt's meeting on the day he died with his one-time mistress. You wonder what the Internet age is doing to this kind of material. Actually, I don't wonder, I know. The nature of the nation's historical record has already changed dramatically. Politicians don't write letters any more. Practically speaking you can't get a piece of mail into the White House or a Congressional office. All business is done on the phone or my email. Still, one hopes that George W. Bush's or Barack Obama's version of Grace Tully - every politician worth a darn has a Grace Tully - is slipping a few choice notes and letters into a "confidential file" that one day scholars and the rest of us will get to see. As the FDR archivist says, such things show us how leaders reason, worry and joke. The dry, factual record is only part of the story. History - and our country's story - lives in the small, intimate details.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Understudy

The Anti-Strasburg Everyone showed up last night at National's Park in the center of our political universe - Washington, D.C. - to see a star perform, but the understudy got the call and ended up taking the bows. Talk about a no-win situation. It was like the hot and sticky sell-out crowd of 40,043 bought standing room only tickets to see a Broadway show with a big name star. Instead they got the kid from summer stock. The fickle faithful were expecting something magical; think Yul Brenner strutting his stuff in The King and I. Instead they got a skinny, ex-Mariner who has rarely strutted much stuff and has often had to slink off the stage under fire. Its not very generous to boo a guy, as many of the Stephen Strasburg-crazed D.C. baseball fans did last night, who scattered three singles, struck out six and didn't gave up a run in five innings, while shutting down the division leader. Understudies get no respect. When Miguel Batista took the mound for his on-field warm-up last night, the guy next to me said what 40,042 other baseball fans were thinking: "where's the kid, where's Strasburg?" Strasburg, who has been the talk of baseball since joining the Nationals earlier this season "couldn't get loose" before the game and the general manager nixed his appearance. His understudy was ready. Batista, having gotten the call fifteen minutes before game time, obviously knew his part. "Imagine, if you go there to see Miss Universe," he said after the game, "and you end up having Miss Iowa, you might get those kind of boos. But it's OK. They had to understand that as an organization we have to make sure the kid is fine." Miss Iowa showed some class, got a 3-0 win and, after an MRI, it looks like the kid is fine. One of the great things about sports is the "on any given day" factor. Last night was Miguel Batista's given day. I admit to being one of the 40,000-plus who panted into the ball yard last night yearning to marvel at the 98 mile an hour fastball and the devastating curve of the young guy who has captivated the baseball world since the Nationals brought him up to the show earlier this season. Instead, I witnessed something even better, a 39-year old pitcher in the twilight of a mediocre career rising to the moment. Strasburg has been getting more ink - and hype - inside the Beltway than a ban on earmarks and maybe he deserves it. (The Beltway's "must read" political writer, Mike Allen of Politico, featured the Strasburg Scratch in his morning email along with the news that White House stars Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod where among the disappointed 40,043.) But last night, at least for a few precious innings, a guy who hadn't won a game since George W. Bush was in the White House made a statement. I know, I know, the last minute substitution was no doubt a prudent precaution to protect a franchise player with a long career ahead of him, but who can't get loose in 90 degree weather with 85 percent humidity? That guy next to me, even with a couple of beers, could have gone three innings in that heat. With water - or was it beer - dripping down my forehead, I had to wonder if a 17-year-old Bob Feller ever had trouble "getting loose?" The 40,043 were reminded last night that "baseball is a business" and there is no effective liability reform that can protect against a young and sore arm. Still, I hope someone bought Miguel Batista a steak and a beer after the game. I have a feeling he was pretty lose last night. The understudy pulled it off. And, you gotta love that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Am Love

Here's a Movie for the Summer Family, food, fabrics, footwear. Set it all in Milan in a fabulous villa - the Medicis would kill (maybe they did) for this place - and stir in an outstanding performance by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and you got yourself a summer feast. It's called I Am Love and it is one of the better movies I've seen in a while. Oh, I forgot to mention the love affairs, corporate intrigue and shocking death. The Recchi family is wealthy - boy are they wealthy - and mother Emma (the Swinton role) is obviously the stabilizing glue in this group. Still Emma, even though she is the core of the family, seems strangely remote. It could be because she is a Russian-born transplant brought to one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, and married into a family with more money than good sense. She says at one point that when she came to Italy she ceased being Russian. Nonetheless, she's made her peace, it seems, with her bloodless businessman of a husband and presides over the family household staff and fabulous dinners with elegance and grace. Until. Until, that is, she falls completely, and with shocking speed, under the spell of her son's close friend, an ambitious chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant. It's hard to believe that a scene with a young cook showing an older woman how to use a torch to brown food could be, well, erotic, but you need to see it. Before you can say "three minute egg" Emma has tossed her Ferragamo's and shed her classy outfits to roll around in the grass with Antonio. The New York Times review said: "By the end of this often soaringly beautiful melodrama, which closes with a funeral, Emma’s face will have crumpled into a ruin. But it will also be fully alive, having been granted, like Pygmalion’s statue, the breath of life." The film is in Italian and Russian and should further establish Tilda Swinton as a major, major talent. The love scenes and party scenes are pretty good and the food wasn't bad, either.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hoarding Cash

So Much Cash, So Little Investment You don't have to read the Wall Street Journal every day to know that the economy is barely struggling out of the Great Recession. Unemployment bumps along at just under 10 percent and some in the Congress debate whether extending benefits to the job seekers might actually encourage the out of work to stay on the sofa. In Idaho, the governor tells state employees that they best keep their expectations in check. Better times aren't around the corner anytime soon. Yet, somebody is making out in this rotten economy. The federal pay czar - yes, we have one - recently called the $2 billion the biggest of the big banks paid in bonuses in late 2008 and 2009 "ill-advised," but all he could do was hold a news conference and point that out. Reforming big bank incentives seems not to be in the cards. These same banks, most recipients of TARP funds we all provided, are still reluctant to lend significant money, but they seem to have no reluctance to make money, stack it up in the vault and hand it out in multi-million dollar bonuses. Meantime, its estimated that Fortune 500 companies are sitting on something north of $1.8 trillion in cash. As Bruce Stokes pointed out recently in a piece for the National Journal, only corporate America has the financial wherewithal to get the fragile economy moving, yet the money seems to be going under the mattress and into obscene bonuses rather than into jobs, R&D and acquisitions. Stokes suggests taxing excess corporate cash. I'll not hold my breath on that idea, but there is ample evidence the cash hoarding is hurting the recovery. Economic analysts Yves Smith and Rob Parenteau contend part of the reason for the corporate cash accumulation is the short-term nature of corporate thinking. CEO's and their boards have become obsessed with quarterly earnings reports and the fact that Wall Street analysts and big investors reward or punish those who hit or miss those every three month targets. "To show short-term profits," Smith and Parenteau wrote recently in a New York Times piece, "they avoid investing in future growth. To develop new products, buy new equipment or expand geographically, an enterprise has to spend money — on marketing research, product design, prototype development, legal expenses associated with patents, lining up contractors and so on." My thoughtful Montana friend, Pat Williams, the former Congressman who now teaches at the University of Montana, had a great piece last week that got me thinking about what only business can do in tough times like these. Pat, recalling a tough 1950's economic downturn when he was just a kid, remembered that his mother and dad actually made the decision to invest into a down economy on the main street of Butte, Montana. In a piece that appeared in a number of Montana papers, Pat wrote: "I remember Dad telling our customers and insisting to his fellow small business friends along Park Street, 'Now is the right time.' His logic was that building contractors needed work, Butte’s people wanted jobs, the appearance of downtown was important, and, he insisted, interest rates were only going up. He firmly believed that one invested in one’s self by investing in your customers and your city." It may be the toughest thing to do in a tough economy to make an investment decision. The safe path is to keep the cash in the bank, avoid risk and ride it out. History rewards the successful risk taker, but then again why risk it? The economy needs a positive jolt. It's time to start investing for the long-term. Its time for a glass half full attitude. Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Hewlett and Packard did not built empires by not investing in their customers and cities. When Pat Williams' folks invested in the remodel of their Butte restaurant back in the 1950's a curious thing happened. "Following the completion of that new, expensive store front," Williams wrote, "we had a significant increase in customers saying thanks by enjoying a steak dinner, buying a box of candy, or simply throwing a dime on the counter for an extra cup of coffee." Funny thing how the economy responds to the notion that things really can get better. Maybe it really is less about economic theory and more about human nature. It is time to take some measured risk. Goodness knows, there is a lot of room on the upside.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dan Schorr

Giving Them What They Need Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the "days of black and white TV." Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950's to the 1970's - an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr - is what I really miss. There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager's suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know? Dan Schorr was clearly in the "need to know" camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade. I was never a particular fan of Schorr's commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man - or a reporter - of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr's long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff. As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, "Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn't even have to make a profit." I've always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn't ever called a "news program" or a "news show." News was delivered in the form of a "broadcast," a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball. There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the "good old days," but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today's hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O'Reillys, couldn't carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros. Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mad Men

I Know What I'll Be Doing Sunday Night

I admit I have been a late adopter of the wondrous world of Mad Men, the AMC Sunday night show that has done so much for the early 1960's. Some of my colleagues started telling me about how great the show was and I finally went back to the first three seasons, thanks to NetFlix, and got completely hooked. The series starts its fourth season Sunday and by all accounts it continues to be correctly called the "best thing on TV."

For the uninitiated, like me until a few months ago, the storyline unfolds in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960's. A superb ensemble cast is pitch perfect in portraying the intelligence, competitiveness, class and crassness of beautiful people without a lot of balance, at times, but with plenty of booze all the time.

As Slate notes about the new season: "Ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) raided the crumbling Sterling Cooper for its top talent and set out to launch Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fledgling enterprise that should be fertile ground for the show's strengths: office politics, office romance, and the socio-politico-historical hoo-hah Matthew Weiner brilliantly wrings from each Draper pitch."

The series is particularly good at capturing the details of the smoking 60's; secretaries with big hair and big - er, typewriters. The ad men are slicked back, three-Martini guys who engage in verbal towel snapping when they aren't eyeing up the "new girl" in the secretarial pool.

The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz praises the cast as, "smart, they're self-seeking, they're recognizably human. They're also overweight or undertailored, dowdy, faintly unkempt—but for John Slattery's Roger Sterling and Mr. Hamm. It's never less than enthralling to watch this cast at work, not least Vincent Kartheiser as Peter Campbell—a seemingly slick operator whose every urgent flicker of the eye suggests something deeper."

No one can call January Jones' character, the ice queen Betty Draper, "faintly unkempt." If anything you keep waiting for one of those blond hairs to slip out of place, knowing it might cause a breakdown. Jones plays her role - now Draper's ex-wife - so well you think that any moment the volcano inside Betty is about to blow.

I have no idea what life was like in a Manhattan ad firm in 1964, which is where we pick up these folks in the new season, but I'm betting the series makers have it pretty close to right. Double martinis, big marketing budgets, demanding clients, tight dresses and Mad Men on the make. This is good, really good, television.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looting the Silver Valley

A Tory Money Man's Connections to Idaho How does an ultra-wealthy financial backer of new British Prime Minister David Cameron connect to the dusty miners in the nearby photo? In a word the connection is - money, and lots of it. From the 1880's forward, a narrow valley along the Coeur d'Alene River in far northern Idaho has produced more than a billion ounces of silver, not to mention tons of zinc and lead. Idaho's Silver Valley at one time produced more than half of the nation's silver and was the richest mining district in the world. Like most of the world's mining districts, the Silver Valley has long been a landscape of equal parts hope and hopelessness. For years, while the mines produced tremendous wealth, the pay was good and the jobs plentiful. Not many worried that the old Bunker Hill smelter was pumping out a vile mixture of lead and other bad stuff that killed off trees and tainted the soil. As Idaho Public Television noted in an episode on the Silver Valley a while back, lead poisoning - long before the EPA or Superfund legislation - was a serious problem for smelter workers. "One early attempt to cure lead poisoning, called the Clague Process, passed an electric current through a miner's body while his hands and feet were immersed in water. The Bunker Hill Company hospital used this method for several years, but it ultimately proved totally ineffective." In 1973, a fire at the smelter's bag house removed the protection that had existed preventing high concentrations of lead from getting into the air and, in turn, in the soil, water and blood stream. The Bunker Hill ownership operated the facility for almost a year without adequate filtration in place and that, in part, helps explain why a 21 square mile area of the Valley is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country. Now to David Rowland. David Rowland? Who's he? Rowland is, according to the Daily Mail in London, the man David Cameron has tapped to become the Tory Party treasurer come October. He is also one of the wealthiest men in Britain; a man who apparently dodged UK taxes for some years by living on the Island of Guernsey before resurfacing last year to contribute millions of pounds to the Conservative Party in Britain. It just so happens that Rowland was also once the CEO of Gulf Resources, the company many in the Superfund encumbered Silver Valley of northern Idaho believe looted that company and reneged on clean-up commitments that should have legitimately been his responsibility. As the newspaper noted in a July 10, 2010 story: "Rowland found himself embroiled in the (Silver Valley clean up) dispute in February 1989 when his UK property company Inoco, which was controlled by a family trust, bought Gulf Resources which took over ownership of the (Bunker Hill) smelter plant. "He immediately sparked huge political opposition when he attempted to move ownership of some of the company's assets to the tax haven of Bermuda - which would have prevented them being used to finance the environmental clean-up. "The move was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department. "Mr Rowland then, through Gulf, sunk $120 million in a property deal in New Zealand, thus putting those funds beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities.

"Gulf also attempted a hostile takeover of an Australian mining company which would have taken even more money away from the clean-up."

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus was concerned at the time, and still believes today, that Gulf Resources intentionally took money out of the company - by one claim Rowland pocketed $100 million himself - to make sure the money couldn't find its way into the Silver Valley clean up.

"I think the scoundrels looted the company," Andrus said recently.

Katherine Aiken, the distinguished and scholarly dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, is the historical authority on the Silver Valley. Her history of the Bunker Hill - Idaho's Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981 - is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and importance of the area.

Dr. Aiken told the Daily Mail: "When Mr. Rowland left Gulf Resources, the money was gone, which is why so many people went to court to try to get some back. People in (Silver Valley) bars curse when David Rowland's name is mentioned. Gulf Resources was the villain here."

Rowland denies he or Gulf Resources did anything wrong. They'll never buy that line in Kellogg or Smelterville.

Perhaps it is true that money can't buy happiness, but in large enough bundles money can buy a way out of costly troubles and into political connections.

For David Rowland who, anyway you slice it, left a lot of unfinished business in northern Idaho, three million pounds contributed to the British Conservative Party can obviously buy, if not happiness, at least a selective memory regarding his business dealings 20-plus years ago in a place called the Silver Valley.

Rowland's net worth is estimated at $730 million pounds. Even ten percent of that would go a long way in the Valley.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An Earlier "Tea Party"

Lessons from the 1930's Both Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt began their presidency by inheriting a country in economic meltdown. Both were Washington, D.C. outsiders who had mobilized broad, new coalitions in order to reach the White House. Both achieved dramatic legislative successes in their first two years in office. Both engendered tremendous right of center opposition bordering on genuine hatred. Obama spawned the Tea Party movement in 2009. FDR provided the catalyst for something called the American Liberty League in 1934. The two movements, separated by more than 75 years, have as much in common as the circumstances of the Obama and Roosevelt presidencies. The language each used - focused on the Constitution the Founders envisioned, the threat to the country from "socialist" policies, and the insidious hand of big government - is nearly interchangeable, at times eerily so. In their book - All But the People - George Wolfskill and John Hudson described the leaders of the anti-FDR Liberty League as focused on the Constitution and private property and convinced that the country was bound for socialism or fascism, or both. In the mid-1930's, leaders of the Liberty League were convinced that FDR was trampling on the Constitution and, as Wolfskill and Hudson wrote in their 1969 book, the country was "on the brink of chaos, threatened by bankruptcy, socialism, dictatorship, and tyranny" there is a "trend toward Fascist control" of the economy and on top of all that the banking industry had been taken over by the federal government.

One Tea Party website today says: "In this current day and age of politics many of (our) freedoms and liberties have come under attack, and are in danger of being taken away altogether. The Constitution of the United States, which is the definitive document that governs all of America, is routinely violated, disregarded, and trampled on by the very persons we have elected to defend and uphold it."

New Deal historian David Woolner has written: "In hundreds of published pamphlets, the (Liberty) League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President’s leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers."

Hard times - in 1934 or 2010 - engender uncertainty and, yes, some chaos. It has happened before in our history. One thing that is different from FDR's day to ours is that the Democratic president in 1934 had no hesitancy to take on those who came at him. The country didn't dissolve, despite the overheated rhetoric, into "socialism" or "fascism" and the Constitution has survived. FDR fought back against his critics and, even with a new wave of New Deal revisionism underway, has been vindicated by history.

Roosevelt seemed to almost relish the battle with his opponents. He attacked the Liberty League as agents of Wall Street and he termed his well-funded opponents as the "malefactors of great wealth" who did not care about those less fortunate. When FDR ran for re-election in 1936 he famously said: "Never before in all our history have these forces (the anti-New Deal, Roosevelt forces) been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me - and I welcome their hatred." Talk about a bring 'em on statement.

New Deal scholar Woolner noted recently, "President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November."

Two lessons here. One, politics is a contact sport. If you are not pushing back on your opponents, you are most often loosing ground. Two, Americans reward conviction, not process.

Obama has a narrowing window to recast the last year or so as being about what FDR said in 1934, getting the country on sound footing and taking care of those Americans who don't need a handout, but a hand up. Roosevelt vigorously defended his activist government as what was needed when the country faced enormous economic and social challenges.

Obama's term so far has often been defined by "process" - the legislative process to write a health care bill, the process to find a path forward in Afghanistan, the process to cap an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Process isn't politics. Emotion and conviction are.

Harry Truman said "the only thing new in this world is the history you don't know."

Franklin Roosevelt's response to the American Liberty League in 1934 offers a playbook for the current president. Has he read the history?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weekend Potpourri

Jerry Brown, Raul Labrador and the Boss Politics is a fascinating business. Many of us - me included - bemoan the ungodly length and expense of the campaigns of our political process, but you have to admit this much: a long, grueling campaign can provide a glimpse of the real character of the candidates.
Take Jerry Brown, for instance. Brown may be in the midst of making one of the classic mistakes in politics - assuming too much. The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting story on Brown's troubles connecting with folks who don't remember him from his earlier days as governor of the ungovernable nation of California. Brown is hazy on policy specifics, its said, and his claim to be the candidate of experience rings hollow for those under 40 who just don't know what this old guy is all about.
A couple of years in politics in a long, long time. A decade or more is a lifetime. Jerry Brown is finding, as I've noted before here, that a comeback in politics is darn tough. Newer voters don't know you, many of those who do know you wonder if you have any new ideas and, of course, your enemies seem to be the only voters with really long memories. Polls and Money in Idaho's First Raul Labrador, the GOP candidate in Idaho's First Congressional District, did something unusual this week - he touted a poll that showed him ten points behind incumbent Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. Candidates tend to tout polls that show them in the lead or, at least, within striking distance. Labrador's pollster, the respected Oregonian Bob Moore, did note in the release on his research that the challenger's challenge is to become as well known and as well liked as Minnick. The real news in Bob's survey, seems to me, is that Minnick is "personally well liked" by 52% of the voters polled in the First District. His negative score was 21%. Right now, any incumbent will take those numbers to the bank and Minnick has. The other major news in this race this week is that Minnick has a million bucks in the bank. Labrador has less than $69,000. That won't buy much name recognition for a challenger who needs to become better known. So Long to the Boss...

When I heard on Tuesday that long-time New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had died, I have to admit my first reaction was - just like "the Boss" to die the morning of the Major League All-Star game. What timing. His bigger than life story would dominate the mid-summer classic and overshadow a rare National League win. It could have been the storyline of a Seinfeld episode.

I come genetically by my dislike for the Bronx Bombers. My Dad taught me a good deal of what I know about the great game and his genes held the DNA of a Yankee hater. It would only follow that I'd never have much use for George and his antics.

I remember quizzing Dad about some of the all-time greats of the game. I asked about DiMaggio who, Dad admitted, was a "great player, but also a #@&* Yankee." Enough said.

Still, as George departs for whatever rewards await a Major League baseball team owner, we need to give the ol' boy his due. Steinbrenner burnished one of the greatest "brands" in sports, maybe in business - period. He insisted in perfection. OK, perhaps boorishly at times, but he hated not to win and found anything but winning unacceptable.

Perhaps he can't take the World Series victories with him, but Steinbrenner - I hope - enjoyed them while he could. We will not, I suspect, see another like him. God rest his soul and go Red Sox.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Last Call

The Rule of Unintended Consequences Most students of 20th Century American history know that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution - Prohibition - helped spawn the rise of organized crime. Al Capone, Mayer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, not to mention a host of lesser crooks and thugs, owed their spectacular rise to the misguided reformers of the 1920's who thought they could put the Constitution between a thirsty citizen and a bottle of rye. But until I popped open Daniel Okrent's fascinating new book - Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition - did I realize that so much else has resulted from the great experiment to do away with booze in America. Take, for example, the rise of the now ubiquitous Walgreen's Drugstore. You can find a Walgreen's on every other corner in many U.S. cities today and we can thank Prohibition for that. Okrent notes that Chicago-based Charles Walgreen had built his "chain from nine locations in 1916 to twenty just four years later." Family history says it was the introduction of the Walgreen's milkshake that drove the chain's remarkable growth spurt in the 1920's, but it wasn't milkshakes alone that allowed Walgreen to operate 525 stores by the end of the decade. Physicians prescribing "medicinal" alcohol had a lot to do with the rise of the drugstore chain. Doctors typically charged two bucks for a script for a pint of whiskey and the local pharmacist filled the order. That must have been almost as good as a modern day Viagra concession. Prohibition also sped the evolution of the speedboat, something like the kind George H.W. Bush ran aground yesterday on the Maine Coast. Rum runners needed the extra horsepower to outrun the Coast Guard along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Many of the big names in today's California wine industry - Mondavi, Beaulieu, Wente - thrived during the 1920's thanks to the dramatic increase in the consumption of "sacramental" wine. Jewish "wine congregations" suddenly appeared around the country. Okrent also makes an effective case that modern coalition politics can trace its dry roots to Prohibition. A motley and unlikely crew of anti-booze zealots, women's suffrage advocates, progressive reformers in favor of an income tax and even the Ku Klux Klan, came together to convince the Congress, and then most state legislatures, to end the liquor trade. We know how this story ends. It didn't work. Yet both political parties and politicians as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding went along with a national wave that, while politically expedient was also really stupid. Okrent - he is the former Public Editor of the New York Times - writes with genuine insight based on exhaustive research. He quotes the Mayor of Boise and bar owners in Butte; the Governor of Utah and the sheriff of King County, Washington and paints wonderful portraits of the cast of characters that drove the politics and the policy. George Will recently called Okrent's book "darkly hilarious" and it is downright laugh out loud funny at times. One big-time bootlegger in New York was so impressed with the closing arguments of the prosecutor who was trying to put him in jail that he told the lawyer, "I almost think I should be convicted." Will also said, and its true, that Prohibition was doomed from the start. "After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by "social nullification" - a tide of alcohol - and by the exertions of wealthy people like Pierre du Pont who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort." By 1932, the fizz had gone completely out of Prohibition and Franklin Roosevelt, in the political parlance of the time a "dry-wet" - he supported Prohibition, but also enjoyed a martini (with entirely too much vermouth, according to contemporaries) - could openly call for repeal. The photo at the top of this post is of the caustic columnist H.L. Mencken drinking to the end of Prohibition in his hometown of Baltimore, a place that never, even remotely, took to the notion of no booze. Mencken pronounced his first drink - make that legal drink - "pretty good - not bad at all." Prohibition, like so much of our history, is a cautionary tale. Excess in almost everything is a bad idea. It is hard - impossible maybe - to redirect basic human instinct; harder yet to ban a substance that many enjoy responsibily and fundamentally think should be no one's business save their own. Prohibition proves that there are limits to what governments can do. Last Call, a good summer read, full of insight into American politics and culture, is - pardon the pun - spirited. It might even go a bit better with a drink of something. You choose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Honoring Borglum

Art and Politics in a Different Time You can be forgiven if you didn't know that Idaho has a Hall of Fame. Apparently the group only gets real attention when they decide, as they did in 2007 and again last week, to honor an individual with Idaho connections who has generated controversy. The last time the group was in the news, they had decided to induct Larry Craig into the Hall while the former senator was still daily enduring the brunt of jokes from late night comedians. This year its Mt. Rushmore sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who has generated the headlines because of his 1920's ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum, born in Bear Lake County, Idaho Territory in 1867, was a man of enormous talent, even greater ambition and - I know this will be a shock - some serious shortcomings as a person. As the superb PBS series The American Experience noted when it broadcast a piece on Mt. Rushmore some time back, "Borglum liked to tinker with his own legend, subtracting a few years from his age, changing the story of his parentage. The best archival research has revealed that he was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Danish Mormon bigamist. When his father decided to conform to societal norms that were pressing westward with the pioneers, he abandoned Gutzon's mother, and remained married to his first wife, her sister." The rest of Borglum's life was just as confused and, frankly, in keeping with the west of mythology, just as disordered and contradictory. Why else would a elfin-size man consider it possible (not to mention desirable) to carve 60 foot high heads of American presidents on the side of a slab of granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Borglum also believed he had the ability and political skill to create a monument to the heros of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. That's where the Idaho native met up with the Klan. Carving portraits on the sides of mountains requires some kind of ego, not to mention showmanship, artistic and engineering skill, political connections and impossibly good public relations. Borglum had all that and then some. I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, a National Monument about 25 miles from Rapid City. The monument, to my eyes, is one of the most fascinating tourist sites in the United States and draws nearly 3 million visitors every year. Yet, the place is an incredible study in contradiction. At Mt. Rushmore, it requires real effort not to confront all the tension and dissention inherent in the American story. When the project was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in the summer of 1927 he cast Borglum's breathtakingly complex endeavor in patriotic, nationalistic terms. "Its location will be significant," Coolidge said. "Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism." Silent Cal lavished praise on the "people of South Dakota" and the four American presidents who would soon take their places on the mountain. He did not deign to mention the Lakota Sioux, the original "people of South Dakota" who considered - still consider - the Black Hills theirs by right of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1868. So, in the extreme, Borglum's incredible artistic and engineering accomplishment is a shrine to American democracy and all the best that stands for and a mountain-sized reminder of what the "American" experience has meant for Native Americans. Borglum story was every bit as much a contradiction as the story of his greatest accomplishment. All the news coverage of Borglum's induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame prominently mentioned, as it should have, his involvement with the Klan while he was attempting to construct what eventually became the Stone Mountain Memorial in Georgia - a monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. The Idaho Statesman's Kevin Richert and the editorial page of the Idaho State Journal chided the Hall of Fame pickers for, at a minimum, a lack of due diligence in selecting Borglum for any honor. Here's my take. The Klan represents a ugly, ugly period in American history, but it is our history and a fair and more complete - not to mention more interesting - reading of that history requires us to struggle with context and motivation. The "perfect" vision afforded by hindsight can blind us to nuance. History, after all, is often about finding a balance; in Borglum's case human frailty versus great accomplishment. Borglum, a politician as much as a sculptor, surely felt he needed both the political and financial help of the Klan in Georgia in the early 1920's if he were to succeed with his Stone Mountain tribute. The three Americans honored there, not to put too fine a point on it, had participated in an effort to violently overthrow the government of the United States. And Stone Mountain isn't just another hunk of granite. The modern Klan was re-born in a ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915. Borglum took on the Stone Mountain project for several reasons; for money no doubt, surely for prestige, maybe even for his art. He set out to create an heroic monument to the leaders of the War of Rebellion at the same time he was contemplating a monument to one of the presidents who put down that rebellion. In the process, in the case of Stone Mountain, he made a deal with the Klan. Today we might well say Borglum made a deal with the devil and, yes, you might get an entirely different read on these same details in part of the old Confederacy. That, too, is part of our history. Consider one more contradiction. Borglum abandoned work on Stone Mountain in 1923 in large part because of financial disagreements with the project's sponsors. He had also gotten enthused about the prospects of an even more grandiose art project in the Black Hills championed by a very progressive Republican United States Senator named Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a friend and political supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and his brand of liberal GOP politics, worked - most of the time, anyway - closely with Borglum to push the Mt. Rushmore project and raise money to complete the monument. Norbeck in his politics and priorities was about as far removed from the Klan as South Dakota is from Georgia. In 1924, to further confound the modern reader of Borglum's life, the sculptor happily endorsed the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive ticket. Borglum cast quarter-sized bronze reliefs of the very liberal La Follette and his equally liberal running mate Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. The likenesses of the two progressives - they supported strong unions, child labor laws and a non-interventionist foreign policy - were used as campaign buttons and you can still occasionally find Borglum's handsome work in second hand shops or on eBay. It's also worth noting that during that 1924 election only the Progressive Party platform condemned the Klan. The Democratic and Republican platforms were silent because, rather than condemn the white sheet crowd, the major parties actually hoped to appeal to Klan members. As historian Stanley Coben has pointed out, in the 1920's the Klan "enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama." In the 1920's, Klan backed candidates won races for governor in Oregon, Kansas and Colorado. Shakespeare wrote, "the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." Borglum, as is well document, had many flaws, including ego and self aggrandizement and he flirted, and maybe more, with the Klan. We have been recently reminded that as a young, ambitious man, the late, great Sen. Robert Byrd did much the same. Hugo Black, arguably one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in our history, and certainly one of the greatest civil libertarians to ever grace the Court, had to explain his Klan membership in 1937. He spent the rest of his days living it down. We shouldn't excuse such errors of judgment, youthful indiscretion or rank opportunism, but a fair reading of history - and in this case Gutzon Borglum's accomplishments - also requires consideration of the man's total life. If further proof of Borglum's artistic achievement it necessary, note that he sculpted two of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. This guy, born near Paris, Idaho, had some serious talent. Borglum and the Klan are part of our history; the good and the not so good. So too the mountain he carved on disputed ground in the Black Hills of Lakota territory featuring other worthy - and very human - white men Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Turns out our history is just as confused and contradictory as Gutzon Borglum's.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Worst Idea in Politics

Governors Appointing Themselves The recent death of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia has many, many consequences. For example, until his replacement is decided, Byrd's seat - the 60th Democratic seat in the Senate - deprives the majority of the vote needed to stop a filibuster. Also, depending on how things play in West Virginia, the "safe" Byrd seat could be a seat Democrats have to protect, particularly if there is a special election in the fall. Nothing upsets a state's politics quite like a Senate vacancy, which brings me to the fellow pictured nearby - Governor then Senator Charles Gossett of Idaho. As I noted in a post a few months back, Gossett is one of two Northwesterners - Montana's John Erickson being the other - who engineered their own appointments to the U.S. Senate. It is a horrible idea and nearly always fatal to the politician doing the engineering. Perhaps this is why West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who reportedly longs for Byrd's Senate seat, has repeatedly ruled out appointing himself. Maybe that self awareness helps explain the governor's 70% approval rating in the Mountaineer State. Still, the state's AFL-CIO, among others, has publicly called for Manchin to reconsider. Bad idea, Governor. Nine governors have tried the, "gee, I think I'll appoint myself to the Senate" approach. Eight of them subsequently lost a primary or the very next opportunity to confront the voters, Gossett and Erickson included. Only one governor has been able to pull off this political slight of hand, Kentucky's Albert B. "Happy" Chandler in 1939. Chandler went on to win a special election and then a full term and then resigned his Senate seat in 1945 to become Commissioner of Baseball. It says all one needs to know about Chandler's Senate career that he is best remembered for succeeding Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and approving Jackie Robinson's major league contract in 1947, but that's another story. At least one very promising political career ended when a governor appointed himself to the Senate. In 1977, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, a rising star in national Democratic politics, decided he was the best choice to replace Walter Mondale who had left his Senate seat vacant when he was elected Vice President. Anderson, handsome, well-spoken, known to Minnesotans as "Wendy", had graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1973 while wearing a plaid shirt and holding a big ol' northern pike. Anderson, it seemed, was a young man with a bright political future. It all ended with the "Minnesota Massacre" of 1978. The Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party - the DFL - suffered a shackling at the polls that year. Anderson lost the Senate election and his former Lt. Governor, Rudy Perpich, who had facilitated Wendy's Senate aspirations, lost the Governor's race. The voters took out their resentment on politicians who were seen as too smart by half. Generally speaking, voters hate an inside deal. In the Minnesota case, once they had punished him, voters did give Perpich a second chance. He came back to win and go on to become the state's longest serving governor. When a Senate vacancy occurs, it must be tempting for a governor having won a statewide race, having built a political organization, to look in the mirror and think: "there is no one better for this job." History says there are better choices - and they include anyone but the governor.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Political Movies

Politics on the Big Screen It's been a while since Hollywood produced a really good political film. With the exception of Primary Colors and Frost/Nixon, I'm hard pressed to name another really good recent film with a political theme. I've got to go back to the 60's to begin my "best of the best" list. So, lets go to the movies and consider politics on the big screen. Gore Vidal, to the extent he is remembered at all these days, is recalled as a relic of the 60's thanks to his feuds with Norman Mailer, his lefty politics, etc. Vidal, a really fine writers, deserves much better, not least for his play - and screenplay - for one of the best political movies ever - The Best Man. The 1964 movie has a superb cast - Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy (who won an Academy Award). Order it up on Netflix and revel in the black and white, 1960's atmosphere of a vicious campaign for the White House. See if you can match up the characters with the real politicos of the time. JFK, Truman and Stevenson, according to some, were Vidal's inspiration. It is a very good film and good political theater featuring a cameo from the great ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. If Vidal did nothing else in his long, literary life (and he did) this screen play would stand alone as a worthy piece of work, worthy of a great writing career. One of my all-time favorite movies, and a great play, too. Other favorite "political" movies:
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939. Capra had the misfortune to make his great political film in the same year with Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Still the story of naive, freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith endures. True story, members of the Senate hated - absolutely loathed - Capra's film. Majority Leader Alben Barkley went to the premier in Washington, D.C, left in a huff and condemned the movie the next day as an outrage. Senators didn't behave like that, Barkley fumed, and Capra had dishonored the U.S. Senate. Then, as now, the Senators didn't get it. The public loved Capra's film. The filibuster scene, Jimmy Stewart in a sweat trying to uphold the honor of the world's great deliberative body, is a classic of American cinema.
  • Seven Days in May. The John Frankenheimer film, also from 1964, is a classic story of ambition, honor and respect for the American tradition of civilian control of the military. Kirk Douglas is superb as the Marine colonel who helps thwart a military coup. The authors, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, reportedly got the idea for their novel after interviewing Air Force Gen. Curtis "bomb them back to the stone age" LeMay. JFK read the book and thought it not all that unthinkable that the kind of military coup depicted in the film could occur in the USA. Great film, cautionary tale
  • In 1957, Andy Griffith - yes, that Andy Griffith - starred in a terrific movie - A Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazin directed the film as an early cautionary tale about the incredible power of television as a source of personal power and political propaganda. The film has a great cast, including the wonderful Lee Remick in her debut role. As a post-McCarthy piece of Hollywood magic, this is a a great film.
  • And, number five - so many to chose from - Judgment at Nuremburg, All the President's Men, Michael Collins, Citizen Kane, but I have to pick All the Kings Men, the original version from 1949 with Broderick Crawford. A not-so-fictionalize account of the career of Huey P. Long, the film was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. It won the Best Picture of 1950 and awards for the top actors, too. A great story about political power and the good, and not so good, it can accomplish.

So many films, so little time. If you love politics and the great American story, any of these will be worth a couple of hours. I'm betting you'll still be thinking and talking about them days after the credits fade. See you at the movies.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Last Picture Show

Falling for Doris... As a kid growing up in small town South Dakota, I enjoyed one great perk that has stuck with me all these years. My uncle owned the only movie theater in town - the Harney Theater. As a result, I got to attend every movie - every movie - for nothing. I had to pay for the popcorn and soda. The relatives had to eat, after all, but the movies were free. This is the period when I fell for Doris. Over the course of several years, I think I must have seen all of the Doris Day - Rock Hudson movies at least three times. I confess, I loved her in Pajama Game and, while the Academy Award winning song - Que Sera, Sera - will now be stuck in my head all day, I thought the Man Who Knew Too Much was pretty darn good stuff. First run movies came to Custer, South Dakota, but only after they had run first everywhere else. I remember seeing The Longest Day with its fabulous cast and I went from that great film about D-Day to a life-long fascination with the Allied invasion of France in 1944. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird and don't think I ever missed Gregory Peck in anything else he ever did. Peter O'Toole became T.E. Lawrence for me and Middle East history - at least post World War I history - has never been the same since Lawrence of Arabia. All these movie memories came rushing back yesterday when I read the New York Times piece about small town theaters in North Dakota and elsewhere that are being revived by volunteers. One of the volunteers, Babe Belzer is 74 and it sounds like she is addicted to movies. “If you can get a whole living room of kids watching a movie for three bucks, what a deal,” Belzer said. “But at the theater,” she continued, “the phone doesn’t ring, it’s not time to change the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and there isn’t anyone at your door. It’s kind of the heart and soul of our town.” I get it. With names like the Dakota, the Lyric and the Roxie, the picture palace does help make a town and a small town doesn't seem so small or isolated when a new, big movie shows up on a Saturday night. In my mind's eye, I can still see every nook of the ol' Harney Theater in Custer. I held hands with my first girl friend there. I loved it when the theater manager unwrapped and unrolled the movie posters that came every week. I think I can even remember that smell - the mohair seats, the butter (or whatever it was) on the popcorn, the cool darkness and the bright screen. Those memories seem a good deal more authentic than the local metroplex. The Harney made me a movie fan and perhaps these memories contribute to the fact that I still like the movies from the 1950's and 1960's the best. And, much to my darling wife's amazement, I do still love Doris. She seems authentic, too. Tomorrow...while I'm on a roll, some of my all-time favorite films with political themes.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Weekend Potpourri

July 4th...Things to Savor and Remember In no particular order, some items from the weekend papers: Boisean Tony Doerr has a nice little piece on the Op-Ed page of the Sunday New York Times. Tony searches for morel mushrooms, among other things. Tony's new book will be out this week. In Reno this weekend, the locals are remembering the "fight of the century" in 1910 between the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and the former champ, Jim Jeffries, who some saw as the "great white hope," able to recapture the title. Johnson won in 15 rounds on a blistering hot day and Jeffries, a great boxer in his day, is now remembered as the hope that faded away. Johnson was one of the great characters of American sport. He paved the way for many other athletes of color, as recounted in Geoffrey Ward's fine book Unforgivable Blackness. The PBS film of the same name by Ken Burns is outstanding. The effort to gain a presidential pardon for Johnson - John McCain is now on board - continues. Johnson was convicted of "white slavery" for allegedly transporting a woman across state lines for "immoral purposes." His real crime was that he merely kept company with white women. Finally, no one disparages more than I the lack of civility in our politics these days, but it is worth remembering on this 234th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that we've always - always - had a quarrelsome politics. It is the nature, perhaps, of the beast. A fine little essay by historian Sean Wilentz reminds us that Jefferson was vilified as "a snake in the grass" for his role in the Declaration and John Marshall, the future great Chief Justice, could hardly bring himself to give ol' Tom credit for the first draft of that famous and essential paper. The more things change, as they say. Happy July 4th to you and, yes, I'll raise a glass today to all the Founders. They didn't get everything right, but they did their part. What a country!