Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Among the Best Ever

Ichiro...a Hitting Machine One of my great baseball memories was watching a batting practice session in Arizona several years ago. It was just one of those typically perfect March days when the boys of summer are getting ready in the sunshine of the desert. It was fun to watch the Mariners take their cuts, until the slender right fielder stepped into the batting cage. Then the hitting became a clinic. He drove the first pitch on a line down the left field line, the second pitch in the gap in left center, the third batting practice fastball straight into center field and so on. The guy had such control of the bat and such perfect timing that he could literally drive the ball wherever he wanted - and he did. Can't say I've ever seen a better display of raw, professional baseball hitting ever. The fact that No. 51 established an all-time Major League record last week by getting his 200th hit for the tenth consecutive season has to put Ichiro Suzuki into the ranks of the all-time greatest hitters of a baseball. The great one is a hitting machine. Ty Cobb needed 18 seasons to get 10 seasons of at least 200 hits and the all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, took 15 years. Ichiro did it in ten straight years with the Mariners. Remarkable. Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone speculates that Ichi could get 3,500 total hits by the time he quits, still short of Rose's record, but remarkable considering he came to the U.S. Major Leagues at age 27. As Stone notes, had he been playing since, say, age 22 - he played 9 seasons in Japan before coming to Seattle - he'd be knocking on Rose's door right now. Ichiro has also, generally speaking, had more at bats per season that Rose and doesn't walk as much. The old baseball adage holds that the really great players can do it all - hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, play defense and throw the ball with speed and accuracy. I've seen Ichiro jack a few, but he's clearly not - nor has he tried to be - a power hitter. Still he has 90 homers and has always been a threat to leave the park every time he goes to the plate. I rank him as one of the true impact players of his age. Barry Bonds - illegal drugs aside - was always an impact player, so too Mays and Clemente. Those types of players can impact a game just by being in the line up. Ichiro is in that class. He is also the quiet, professional that shuns the spotlight and plays the great game with respect for its traditions, both in the U.S. and in Japan. One of the first times I saw him I thought you must be joking. This guy's mechanics are all wrong. He can look perfectly awful swinging at a pitch and stepping in the bucket. He flings the bat at the ball. He falls away from the plate. He just gets 200 hits every year. He may not always look great slapping a base hit to the opposite field, but Ichiro is among the greatest hitters ever.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hidden in Plain Sight

World Class Basque Exhibit Opens Friday Boise's own Basque Museum and Cultural Center, a bit of a hidden gem in Idaho's and the Northwest's cultural life, opens a marvelous new exhibit on Friday at the Museum on Boise's historic Basque Block downtown. The exhibit - developed by the Museum - premiered earlier this year at Ellis Island in New York, home of the National Memorial to the American immigration experience. I had a chance to see the exhibit there and can attest to its quality. You'll be fascinated by the breath and depth of Basque influence in the world from politics to sports, from art to business. The exhibit opens after a dinner and program on the Basque Block Friday. Check out the website of the Museum for more information. There is also a website devoted to the exhibit. Reporter Scott Ki of Boise State Public Radio also did a nice piece on the exhibit. One thing the exhibit does particularly well - this is worth remembering as political campaigns slash and burn around the immigration issue - is to remind us that America is a nation of immigrants. In his 1958 book - A Nation of Immigrants - John Kennedy said: "Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience." The Basque experience helps us reflect on the wisdom of Kennedy's words. Make time to go see the exhibit. You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Looking More, Believing Less

The Survey Says... The Pew Research Center for People and the Press is out with a new survey about where we're going for news and why and at least one of the findings in a little surprising to me. Pew says Americans are spending more time following the news. Meanwhile, the Gallup organization has its own research that shows that Americans are less confident than ever in what they are getting from newspapers and television. Fewer than 25% of those surveyed by Gallup say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers or TV. That number represents a 10% decline over the last five years or so. Conclusion: we are more interested than ever in what is going on and we have less belief than ever that what we see and read is the straight scoop. The Pew survey also seems to buttress a contention of mine that news organizations are more and more appealing on a purely ideological basis. This is the news of the future, but really is a return to the past when political ideology sharply defined newspapers and magazines. A liberal - defined, for example, in the Pew survey as one who supports gay rights - tends, big surprise, to like the New York Times and National Public Radio. Supporters of the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party are big listeners to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Fox News. Libertarians like the Wall Street Journal. Pew also reports that more and more of us are using digital means to keep up on the world and younger Americans, those under 30, are fast forgetting what a newspaper is all about. More affluent and well-educated Americans, again big surprise, tend to shop around more using digital, print and broadcast sources for their information. Could be that they just have the time and ability to do so. It may be a stretch to connect these two interesting surveys to some recent musings by former President Bill Clinton, but here goes. During a recent extended interview with the Times - former presidents do extended interviews, apparently - Clinton identified his favorite TV commercial of the last five years as the ESPN spot were the math nerds make fun of the jocks spewing sports stats in the high school cafeteria. Clinton was making the point that the clever spot is a metaphor for American political life. Namely, if we cared as much about the "hard facts" that pertain to public policy as we do about football, it would be a better, at least in Clinton's view, for Democrats. Facts are good things, but Clinton, of all people, should know that politics is much more often - like football - about emotion, feeling and raw execution. I feel Clinton's pain about the need for more focus on "hard facts" in our consumption of news, but, upon further reflection, the former president just might not be the best messenger for the "hard facts" approach to public life. The reality of the moment is - and this is the truth - that we often place more emphasis in developing our positions on what Stephen Colbert has called "truthiness." What we believe may not really be true, but it seems close enough, particularly when we factor in our emotions and ideology. By the way, the Pew survey finds that among those 30 and younger, "about as many young people regularly watch the Daily Show (13%) and the Colbert Report (13%) as watch the national network evening news (14%) and the morning news shows (12%)." Sounds about right. There is an element of "truthiness" in there somewhere. Just ask Rachel Maddow or Bill O'Reilly.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Class Act

Nice Words for a Dodger? I don't like the Yankees or the Dodgers. Never have. But I gotta say a word or two about the class act that recently announced he was taking off the Dodger blue at the end of the season and - do you believe this - retiring. Joe Torre is plain and simple a class act. I'll never understand what happened in New York that caused bad blood to develop between Joe and the pinstriper's management. What the guy didn't win enough for you? Through thick and thin, Torre kept his temper, showed his class and keep the media spotlight from frying him and his players. All Torre did was win in New York - every year in the playoffs, ten Eastern Division titles, six American League pennants and four World Series rings. He obviously didn't have the same talent or budget in LA, especially after the dysfunctional Dodger owners decided to split the sheets, or was it air the dirty laundry? The guy was a player, too. A Gold Glove catcher, National League MVP and a batting title. He's the only guy to have 2,000 wins as a manager and 2,000 hits as a player. He also didn't take himself too seriously even when he looked like the world was resting on those broad, Italian shoulders. Torre holds the National League record for grounding into double plays in a single game. He did it four times in a game in 1975. His comment: "I'd like to thank Félix Millán for making all of this possible." Millán was hitting in front of Torre that day and singled all four times. One of my partners tells a story about a friend of his who once saw Torre sharing a bottle of wine with some other guys in a Seattle restaurant after a game. The friend thinks he'll big-time the Yankee manager and sends over another bottle of what Torre and his friends are drinking, then nearly passes out when he gets the bill. Torre obviously had class when it came to selecting a bottle of wine, too. Torre will have a chance to manage again, I suspect. He certainly deserves another job, if he wants one. He'll look better in anything but pinstripes and Dodger Blue. Or, if he wants, Torre can go to the broadcast booth or, I can dream, replace Bud Selig. Or, he can really retire, spend time with his family and not sleep 100-plus nights a year in a hotel room. As the Giants, Padres and Rockies battle to the wire in the National League West, I regret that Torre's team, as much as I dislike them, aren't in the hunt. He deserves that. Baseball has few enough really classy acts. Joe Torre is one of the best.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Timothy Egan

A Voice of the West Tim Egan, who writes an on line column for the New York Times website, had a marvelous piece earlier this month. He called it "My Summer Home" and it was an ode to the vast expanse of America - our public lands - that all of us own. Egan wrote of an early trip with a friend, also named Tim, and the land they found was theirs and is ours, all of us. "It was ours, Tim and I came to understand, all of it. We owned it — lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore. Public land. We could put up our tents and be lords of a manor that no monarch could match. We could hike in whatever direction our whims took us, without fear of barbed wire or stares backed by shotguns. We could raft into frothy little streams, light out for even bigger country, guided only by gravity." Good stuff and the kind of thing you can hear first hand from Egan on October 6th in Boise. The Andrus Center for Public Policy, in cooperation with the Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited, is hosting an appearance and book signed for Tim at the Rose Room in downtown Boise. The event is free and open to the public and begins at 6:30 pm. Tim will talk about his latest book - The Big Burn - and copies of that page turner will be available thanks to Boise's Rediscovered Books. The Big Burn is a fascinating account of the devastating fires that scorched so much of northern Idaho, Montana and Washington in 1910. Wallace, Idaho virtually burned to the ground. Egan places the fire story in the larger of context of natural resource politics, the birth of the U.S. Forest Service and the legacy that big ol' fire carries to this day. Come on down on October 6th. It will be a good time with a good guy and a great writer.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Poverty in America

The Poor Get Poorer "The moral test of government," Hubert Humphrey once said, "is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." By that measure, we are failing. The Great Recession has ripped another huge hole in the fabric of America life and the poverty rate, as reported this week, is at a 15-year high and expected to go higher in 2010. More than 43 million Americans, one in 7 in the country, now officially live in poverty. Those numbers take us back to 1959 when about the same number of Americans were officially poor. The numbers are considerably worse for African-Americans and Hispanics, with a quarter of all Hispanics and 36 percent of African-American children living in poverty. The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, notes that poverty rates have been on a steady upward trend line since the late 1970's. The Institute's director, Dr. Timothy M. Smeeding, told the New York Times that the poverty numbers would be a lot worse if many people hadn't had someone to move in with during the recession. The Times also noted in its front page story that the temporary aid - the stimulus and extension of unemployment benefits, for instance - that has been so controversial in Congress, has undoubtedly "eased the burdens of millions of families." Meanwhile, the debate rages in Washington over whether to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The Miami Herald has put together a helpful Q-A format report on just what is involved with the great 2010 debate over taxes. It is worth a look if you are as confused as I suspect most of us are about the generally out of touch rhetoric about "tax cuts." One takeaway, extending or ending the Bush cuts for the wealthiest Americans - families with adjusted gross income of $250,000 or more - impacts about 2.9 million Americans. Or, put another way about 40 million fewer people than are reported living in poverty. In point of fact, the very, very rich pay taxes at significantly lower rates that most other Americans because so much of their income is in capital gains and dividends. The IRS has reported that the wealthiest 400 taxpayers in the United States in 2007, paid about 16.6 percent of their income in taxes. Also worth considering: America's income gap has been steadily growing since the late 1970's. One wonders if there is any correlation between that fact and the steady increase in poverty in the same period? "Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern" argues Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich in a recent essay. "Consider," Reich wrote, "in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total." It is difficult - maybe impossible - to maintain for long a cohesive, forward-moving country with such a vast gap among the haves and have nots, with so many out of work, out of opportunity, worried about the next meal, the next need to visit the doctor or the next pair of shoes for the kids.The reality of this fact - the bleak circumstances of our fellow Americans in the shadows - is mostly lost in the current political debate over tax cuts, deficits and the struggling economy. As The Guardian noted - you gotta love those Brits - "in a strange paradox, the party that is accused of doing too little to combat the crisis is poised to suffer heavy defeats in the upcoming mid-term elections by the party accused of doing nothing at all." It was hard to miss the paradox - or is it irony - of the "jump" of the Times story on poverty, which began on Friday's page one and ended next to the Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Tiffany's and Tod's ads on page three. Macy's was touting an animal print mink jacket for $4,995 and Tod's had a really nice purse for $1,495. Marketing to the one percent, I guess.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ed Newman

The Old School You wonder if a guy as gifted and rumpled as Edwin Newman could find a job in television these days. He might be considered too erudite, too wordy for the small screen that these days is crowded with graphics, crawls and, often, vacuous, but handsome talking heads. Ed Newman, whose death was reported yesterday, was a television journalist in the days before "caw-caw," what we used to call the bells and whistles of TV, the spinning graphics, the split screens, etc. His reporting was of the old school. He was a master of language. He wrote good books, asked tough, fair and informed questions and seemed to have an interest in everything. Put another way, the guy was no Bill O'Reilly. The great NBC News anchor John Chancellor said Newman style was a triumph of "content over presentation," and he could do it all - interview, moderate a presidential debate, report an arts piece or analyze an foreign policy development. The guy was a reporter. After retiring, he even even once hosted Saturday Night Live. Newman was in the same class with a Cronkite and a Schorr, two other recently departed broadcast icons whose work and style can't be replaced and whose quality is essentially not to be found on the tube these days. Newman's passing makes me long for the old school - news first, from real journalists, with entertainment or mere diversion left for the sitcoms.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


A Big Tent or a Pup Tent Ronald Reagan defined and built the modern Republican Party. No one would accuse the former president of being anything but a card carrying conservative, even though he was once a Democrat who supported Franklin Roosevelt and campaigned for Harry Truman. Reagan knew a national party had to spread a "big tent" that included Northeastern moderates (even some liberals) and southern conservatives. Reagan won two terms in the White House appealing to what became know as Reagan Democrats; families with union members, big city ethnic voters and what we used to call in Idaho "lunch bucket" Democrats. Reagan was also smart enough to build on the "southern strategy," employed so successfully by Richard Nixon, that essentially turned the Old Confederacy into the modern GOP base. Reagan's was a grand strategy, an inclusive strategy, a winning strategy. It has only become clear, with the benefit of time and hindsight, that the Gipper defined a political generation. That may be close to over. Reagan's "big tent" this morning looks a little like a flimsy dining fly, or maybe a two-person pup tent. After an insurgent Republican, Tea Party supporter defeated moderate Delaware Republican Mike Castle yesterday (that's him above looking as glum as he must feel today), one can almost write the obituary for the moderate Republican. My old boss, Cecil Andrus, used to joke when he was labeled "a liberal" by someone, that most Idaho Democrats were as far removed from eastern liberals like Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, and Jacob Javits, a Republican, as Long Island is removed from Priest Lake. Those were the days when the GOP really had, dare it be said, liberals. In the east Javits, a power in the Senate from the 1950's to the 1970's, proudly called himself a liberal. So did fellow New Yorkers Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay and New Jersey's Clifford Case. Out west, Oregon produced two moderate to liberal GOP Senators in the not-to-distant past, Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield. Today, none of these guys could win a Republican primary. But, back to Castle. A former governor and long-time Congressman, he got himself tagged as "the establishment" candidate in a year when that label hangs like a noose around a candidate's neck. The woman who beat him, Christine O'Donnell, appears to have one overriding public accomplishment - she is against masturbation and has spoken out often against the same. But, I digress. O'Donnell's real attack on the genuinely nice guy Castle was to label him a RINO - Republican in Name Only. As one Delaware reporter put it, Castle was "thrown off track by a flash of conservative voter anger and a flood of political rhetoric poisonous to anyone in the middle." Republicans appear at the edge of an historic victory this fall, a circumstance driven by worry about the economy, uncertainty about the man in the White House and an old fashioned "throw the bums out" sense of anger. But, anger isn't a governing strategy, particularly when the party seems to be growing narrower and narrower in its national appeal. As GOP strategist Mark McKinnon notes today, "the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the Establishment) has now backed eight losing candidates. In other words, this grass-roots anti-establishment wave actually threatens the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate." Democrats, to be sure, have their own intra-party challenges, but somehow the national party has found a way to accommodate conservative Blue Dogs like Idaho's Walt Minnick and big city liberals like Nancy Pelosi. Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be in the purge business. The party, much like Democrats in the late 1960's when insurgents were in control, is a party at war with itself. Republicans will win a lot of elections this fall, but they may wake up the day after the election with an identity hang over and with a party - much like an apartment where too much rough housing has taken place - that is in disarray. A political party, particularly one that has suffered a big defeat, often must endure an internal battle over its identity. In that respect, the national GOP is playing by the historical rules. What may have lasting consequences, however, is the basic political math. Politics, as the old saying goes, is a game of addition not subtraction. The purpose of a national party is to attract supporters, not purge them.The GOP's last great party builder, Ronald Reagan, certainly knew that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Declining Presidency

Less Imperial, More Reactive Robert Dallek is one of the best of the current crop of presidential historians. He's fair-minded and a scholar, but also possesses a keen ability to link the present to the historic. It was no accident that when President Obama, not once but twice, had a small group of historians to the White House for dinner, Bob Dallek was on the guest list along with Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin and a half dozen others. He's also discreet. When I visited with him a few weeks ago, Dallek was carefully respecting his own ground rules for the White House salon. He said he'd gladly talk about what he had told the President, but wouldn't attempt to interpret Obama's response or reaction. Others in attendance, at least at the first dinner, haven't been so careful. The brilliant and provocative Garry Wills wrote a while back about his advice to Obama and his disappointment with the president. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wills didn't get invited back. Wills has argued that Obama is making a Kennedy/Johnson-like mistake by pursuing the path he is on in Afghanistan. In a nutshell, Dallek said he also warned Obama about the historical quagmire that Afghanistan has been and looks like has become again. Bob Dallek's books about JFK and LBJ are important and enduring works and give him a perspective on Obama's challenges that is worth attention. Dallek is on to something with his observation to the New York Times' Matt Bai this past weekend that we are seeing "the diminished power, the diminished authority, the diminished capacity to shape events" of the Obama presidency. Since at least 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt put his hands on the levers of presidential power, each succeeding president has attempted - many have succeeded - in expanding the authority of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once famously called "the imperial presidency." We may be seeing the decline of that all powerful, too powerful perhaps, presidency. It is, Bob Dallek says, "the presidency in eclipse." I tend to the historical view that the presidency has, since FDR's day, become too powerful and that Congress has lost its way in checking that power, particularly when Congress acquiesces to foreign policy adventures cooked up by presidents of both parties. So, a pulling in of presidential power is not an altogether unwelcome turn of event, whatever the cause. Still, there is a problem. Is it conceivable the current Congress - on both sides of the aisle - is capable of exercising more responsible authority? Can the Congress rise, while the presidency is in eclipse? Don't hold your breath. The days when a J. William Fulbright, a Frank Church, a Howard Baker or an Everett Dirksen could speak with moral and political authority - and often in opposition to a president - on a national or international issue seem like a distant memory. The Founders envisioned a separation of powers in the national government with each one of the three branches purposely structured to check the influence and power of the others. If it is correct, for a variety of reasons, that Barack Obama is presiding over a shrinking presidency, then the leadership of Congress must step up their game. The balance envisioned by the Founders has to work and the responsibly for ensuring that it does is both diffused and shared. (Note: Bob Dallek's latest book - The Lost Peace - a history of the immediate post-war period, will be out in October.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

BSU and the BCS

Perception is Reality There is an old truism in the world of politics that holds that how something is perceived is how it is. Even if the perception is not a fair representation of reality, and it frequently isn't in politics, it doesn't matter. Perception becomes reality and the smart candidate or office holder learns to deal with the new "reality." Boise State University's aspiring football team is finding that the old truism holds regarding its national standing, as well. Boise State didn't even play this week and lost ground. The much ballyhooed BSU season opener against Virginia Tech lived up to the hype with the Broncos winning in the final moments of an exciting game, but then Virginia Tech went and lost its second game against a much inferior opponent, lowly James Madison. (No good can come from a major football power losing to a school named for a president, even if he was the principal author of the Constitution.) So, after a thrilling win against a team - Virginia Tech - that once also aspired to a national title, Boise State is left with the reality of having the team that was supposed to be its toughest opponent all year being 0-2 two weeks into the season. The Boston Globe's college football writer listed BSU as among the "big losers" after the Hokies' stumble. While saying it was too early to make definitive judgments about national title contenders, the New York Times nonetheless suggested that Boise State might well be left on the outside looking in. It reminds me of the old Rodney Dangerfield line: "I don't get no respect." Here's the problem, and in this case, its not just perception, but also reality. The Boise State schedule don't get no respect. Consider that the other top teams in the country - Alabama, Ohio State, TCU and Oregon - all have had a test so far in the young season and their schedules arguably get much tougher going forward. Week-in and week-out, these teams play better opponents in big stadiums for higher stakes. Take the Crimson Tide of Alabama, for instance. Over the next three weeks, the current number one ranked college football team will play at Duke, at Arkansas and home against Florida. Those road games, not counting television, will be played in front of more than 100,000 fans. When Florida comes to Tuscaloosa, the ghost of Bear Bryant will walk the sidelines in a stadium named after him, while nearly 102,000 wild-eyed Tide fans look on, not quietly. That is the big time - really. The reality in Bronco Nation is stark: the perception is that the Broncos really don't play all season with the big boys and, as a result, they don't belong in the same elite company. Writing in the Washington Post after the Virginia Tech game, Tracee Hamilton said it well regarding the BSU reality: "Your toughest game shouldn't be your first. But if you are by far the best team in your league, all you can do is to put two ranked teams on your non-conference schedule and hope for some help in moving up the rankings." Take nothing away - really - from Chris Petersen's sterling record, the big game wins over Oklahoma and TCU, but that perception about a weak schedule in an out of the way part of the football world is, well, reality. Bronco fans may be disappointed - again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Nazis Burned Books, Too

No Good Comes From This Unfortunately there is a long history of humans believing they can destroy ideas by burning the books that contain those ideas. The practice hardly began with a crackpot preacher in Florida, but dates back to the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the "New World" and even ancient China. In May of 1933, in the town where Martin Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, pro-Nazi students burned 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Included were works by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, a guy named Hemingway and, of course, works by Karl Marx, Socialists and Jews. The pictures and what they foretold are haunting and should tell us something. Two things about the story out of Florida are worth noting it seems to me. The first is the enormous media attention lavished on Rev. Terry Jones. Not bad for a guy, as Gail Collins pointed out, who has built a thriving congregation of "about 50 people." In a matter of hours, Jones' plan to burn the Quran went viral sparking protests in Afghanistan, worry about the impact on our soldiers in the field, comments from every politician in the nation, etc. More important, perhaps, the Aljazerra website has been all over the story. Additionally, I'm struck by the fact - as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks - how far we have come, in the wrong direction, in building a worldwide consensus to oppose the radical forces that operate in the shadow of Islam. I remember George W. Bush - megaphone in hand, standing on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center - and the profound sense that the United States, at that huge moment in time, had the moral force to lead a worldwide effort to confront extremism. For a brief moment, the world was with us, but...well, apparently we blew it and here we are nine years later. Now I fear the message sent by Rev, Jones, and folks like Newt Gingrich fulminating against a Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, paints America as unfaithful to our own professed and cherished traditions of religious freedom and tolerance. A perception of hypocrisy doesn't play well in any culture. Books - even books we would never read or whose content we abhor - are important things. They are symbols, as well as repositories of history, culture and, at a very important level, tolerance. I'm not a big fan of Sidney Shelton or Barbara Cartland. In fact, I've never cracked a cover of either of those best selling authors, but they have huge followings and you have to respect that. I don't read the Quran, either, but 22% of the people on the planet do and their numbers are growing at a rate faster than the world's population. Sending a billion and a half people regular telegrams from America with a message that we hate them doesn't seem like a winning strategy. It also doesn't seem like America.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is 2010 Really 1938?

Getting an Economic Consensus There are no perfect historical parallels. Nothing is ever precisely like it was in another time. At best, history can help illuminate the present and should, if we're paying attention, help us avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Take 1938, for example. But, alas we are Americans. We can't get agreement on how to crown a national college football champion, how can we possibly get consensus on what to do with the economy? President Obama went to Cleveland this week to roll out a plan for more stimulus spending on infrastructure and small buisness tax cuts as a way to get people back to work. He was greeted by reactions ranging from ridicule to yawning. Meanwhile, House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner, developing economic policy while he measures the drapes, started dropping hints about what a Republican Congress would do with spending (cut it, including unspent stimulus dollars), the economy (grow it) and taxes (leave the Bush cuts in place). All the while leaving room for a few well placed subpoenas. These two versions of economic policy couldn't be more at odds. It does sound a good deal like 1937 and 1938. As Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats faced the mid-terms in his sixth year in office, the Great Depression was in its eighth year. Wall Street was restive. Labor unions were sitting down on the job. Democrats were frantic and the president's counselors were divided. Should FDR double down on spending and fiscal policy aimed at reducing unemployment or should the administration send a message to the markets and business that it was determined to get a ballooning budget under control? Confronted with what historian David Kennedy has described as, "repeated budget deficits, escalating regulatory burdens, threats of higher taxes, mounting labor costs, and, most important, persistent anxiety about what further provocations to business the New Deal had in store," business confidence was sapped. "Capital," Kennedy said, "was hibernating." Sounds familiar, eh? At a pivotal Cabinet meeting late in 1937, FDR fumed about his advisers constantly telling him about the sorry state of the economy, but "nobody suggests what I should do." His economic and political advisers eventually won the debate. The president's Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, a balanced budget advocate, put it succinctly. "What business wants to know is: Are we headed toward state Socialism or are we going to continue on a capitalistic basis?" FDR's chief political lieutenant, Jim Farley, chimed in. "That's what they want to know," that the administration would reduce spending and balance the budget to reassure business and the markets. "All right, Jim; I will turn on the old record," Roosevelt responded. A new fiscal policy aimed at reducing spending and balancing the budget was ordered. The New York Times' Paul Krugman argues that FDR's decision brought on the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1938, caused unemployment to top out at 20% and contributed to stunning Democratic losses - six Senate seats and 71 seats in the House - in the 1938 mid-terms. What's more, Krugman asserts - and he's critical of Obama from the left for being too timid with his stimulus efforts - the public in the late 1930's took exactly the wrong lesson from FDR's shift in policy. Americans became convinced that stimulus spending and job creation efforts hadn't worked and wouldn't work. That debate, check the morning paper, still rages. I keep thinking there must be some middle ground somewhere in the current debate, but I've been wrong before. Couldn't we get something approaching national consensus around two or three major issues? One, Wall Street and investment banking excesses must be brought under control. Does anyone really think that what happened in the run up to the financial collapse shouldn't be avoided in the future if at all possible? Regulating greed and excess is not a partisan issue. Two, spending on well-conceived public works (OK, infrastructure) is both a good long-term investment and good short-term job stabilizer and, one hopes, job creator. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said recently that the stimulus has - big surprise - increased the deficit and reduced unemployment. And, three, the deficit needs to come down, but maybe in a planned, systematic way. Maybe the timing on the expiration of those Bush-era tax cuts is really not very conducive to getting capital out of hibernation. Perhaps a compromise is in order? Someone, the president or John Boehner or the ghost of Henry Morgenthau needs to find a way to knit all the pieces together into a 2010 whole cloth of economic growth, job creation and fiscal sanity. Not holding your breath? I understand. There is a poem entitled "Nineteen-Thirty-Eight" by Andrea Hollander Budy. It's about a young woman who lies about not graduating from high school in 1938: yanked out when her father lost his job. Now it was her turn to make herself useful, he told her. Nineteen-Thirty-Eight was not a particularly good year and not one to repeat. That much history tells us very clearly.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ralph Smeed

One of the Characters My dad loved to say that every town had a "town character," but that in his hometown the characters had a town. If the same can be said of a state, then Ralph Smeed, the crusty, 88 year old libertarian who died yesterday, was one of Idaho's true characters. I don't remember when I first met Ralph, but I do remember it was at the other end of a telephone line. I had just finished what I am sure was another fairly routine half-hour on Idaho Public Television interviewing a panel of guests on some political or economic subject. The phone rang and Smeed boomed down the line: "Johnson, your idea of a good show is getting two liberals to disagree..." Hello, Ralph Smeed. Over time the phone calls became more frequent and I came to know Smeed for his unflinching brand of libertarian politics and his political quips delivered almost always with a smile and genuine humor. He was the bane of all liberals, the mostly cheerful opponent of "government TV" - his term for PBS - a champion of Adam Smith, fierce opponent of "statism," and one of those guys who if not always right, was never in doubt. I have no idea about Ralph's religious views, but God rest him. I suspect, if he gets a chance, he'll be engaging St. Peter over the unfairness of the inheritance tax. Ralph Smeed is one of those characters who can't help but enrich our political system. As a learning journalist, much younger and, I'm certain, much more sure of myself than I had any right to be, Smeed taught me a lesson. He would argue that his brand of libertarian, unfettered free market politics rarely, if every, received the time that news organizations routinely devoted to more conventional conservative vs. liberal debate. He was right then, of course, but that pendelum has swung. I would argue back in the early 1980's that when Smeed's essential views gained a larger following they would be featured more prominently. He would respond that it would be hard for the libertarian point of view to gain a greater following if the so called "main stream media" didn't interview their spokesmen. Touche. I think we both had a point. I like to think I became more open as a result of this running dialogue and I did have the pleasure of reminding Ralph a time or two that he had to watch "government TV" in order to hear Milton Friedman or William F. Buckley. Ralph may have warmed a little when I had the chance to interview Buckley, an encounter he helped to arrange, while the then-host of the PBS program "Firing Line" made a visit to Caldwell. It was one of the better, more interesting interviews I ever did and I happily came away with an autographed copy of Buckley's then-latest book, ironically not about politics, but sailing. You have to like a guy who stood for his beliefs. Not always right, in my view, but never in doubt and someone who could - and would - good naturedly debate his views with anyone. In a way, I envy a guy like Ralph who could be so completely confident in his world view. I don't think life - or politics - is ever quite so black and white, but as I said, we need the Ralph Smeed's to enrich the great debate. College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi summed up Smeedism in a comment to the Idaho Press-Tribune: “Smeed has been very vocal. No one has ever questioned where he stood. If anything, from where he started, (Canyon) county and I guess the state are closer to his ideology.” Whether you believe that is good or bad, it is a true statement.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Importance of Being Borah

A Senator Worth Remembering I'll be speaking on Wednesday night at the Main Boise Library on the life and career of Idaho's longest serving U.S. Senator, William E. Borah. That's him, third from the right, in a photo taken in Sandpoint. I'm going to guess is was in the middle-1920's. The Borah talk is one I have put together as part of the Idaho Humanities Council's Speakers Bureau. I'll talk about Borah's career and lasting importance, but also about his view of the Senate in our form of government. Borah was a progressive Republican, somewhat in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was also fiercely independent and more than willing to buck his own party. I've been reading and writing about Borah for a long time. In fact, I began his journey into blogland more than a year ago with a piece on his approach to Supreme Court appointments. I continue to find him a fascinating character. And, of course, there is that business with Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The Library event is a 7:00 pm in the Main Auditorium. Staff at the Boise Library have also created a great Borah bibliography of books, articles and writings about the man known as "the Lion of Idaho."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Putting the Labor in Labor Day

Unions Decline, China Rises...the Great Shrinking of American Manufacturing David Letterman quips that Americans celebrate Labor Day by going out and buying stuff made in China. That would be funny if it weren't so obviously true. A little weekend shopping - a new ice bucket (still can't fathom what happened to the old one), a salad bowl and some tea candles - resulted in a handful of purchases all made in China or somewhere else. Not even one American-made product in the shopping bag. Can America remain a global power without a manufacturing economy? I guess we'll find out. As the president rolls out a new plan to create jobs and address American infrastructure needs, the icy facts about the decline of the nation's ability to plan, design and build things is hard to ignore, even as most in policy positions do just that. Once upon a time Labor Day was about celebrating the American Labor movement. From Boston to Butte, from the IWW to the IBEW, unions fought, scrapped, lost and won battles that shaped the American economy. Not so much in the 21st Century. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne connects the lack of American prosperity today to the great shrinking labor movement. A third of American workers belonged to a union in the prosperous 1950's. The number is just over 12 percent today. I'll leave it to the labor economists to connect the dots, if they can be connected - organized labor's demise = decline in American manufacturing = a struggling U.S. economy = increasing separation among the very wealthy and the rest of our society. As the American Prospect noted late last year, the U.S. lost 5.5 million - 32 percent - of all its manufacturing jobs from October 2000 to October 2009. More people are unemployed in the United States today than are employed in manufacturing. Since 2001, more than 42,000 American factories have gone the way of the dodo bird. Not resting, but dead. Meanwhile, China's manufacturing economy is cited as a reason for a bump last week in the Asia stock markets. Twenty-five years ago, Idahoans - in the legislature and at the ballot box - pulled the teeth of organized labor in Idaho. It was the nastiest, toughest, most consequential political fight in my time in the state. Conservatives won and the number of Idahoans who are members of labor unions declined by 50 percent. With those declines went the once not inconsiderable clout of organized labor to field political foot soldiers and contribute campaign cash. You can mark the steady decline of Idaho's Democratic Party over the last 25 years to the passage of Right to Work in 1986, even as Cecil Andrus, an opponent of Right to Work and a favorite in the union halls, was returned to the governorship that year. You can still get a debate going by asking whether Right to Work has been good - or not - for Idaho. Conservatives argue that job growth over those years proves that Idaho is a great place to do business. Others suggest that Idaho's declining standing in wages, as compared to the rest of the country, proves that the law has been bad for workers. That debate will never be settled. Writing in the Post, Harold Meyerson contends that the Great Recession has harmed American workers far more than their counterparts in Europe where organized labor remains strong and a substantial political force. The clout of American labor will continue to decline unless and until leaders of the movement quit doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. Before I get typecast as nostalgic for the "good ol' days" of shift changes, suds at the union hall and Labor Day picnics, I'll offer the thought that union leaders must shoulder a good deal of the responsibility for the decline they so readily lament. They have often been tone deaf, cranky and unreasonable and restoring anything approaching their historic standing will require a new generation with new attitudes and tactics. We'll see. Still, on this Labor Day this much is true: for whatever reason(s), the American - and Idaho - economy is a lot different than it was a quarter century ago. Lots of "blue collar" jobs in traditional industries are gone forever. Chinese exports flood the U.S. market. Politicians make Labor Day speeches about rebuilding the nation's economy, but you have to wonder, as another holiday designed to honor labor comes and goes, whether we can rebuild without building things - all kinds of things - again.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Goodbye to the Center

The Last Moderate Can Turn Out the Lights The media's favorite academic pundit, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, has slightly jumped the gun on the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign by flatly predicting that the GOP will capture control of the House of Representatives in November. Sabato says Republicans have an increasingly good chance of taking control of the Senate, too. If Sabato is right, and his predictions are supported by lots of recent state-by-state polling, as well as the instincts of lots of political operatives, then - brace yourselves - the next Congress could be even more sharply split than the current one. The reason is simple: both parties, in a frantic race to secure the support of their most ideological supporters, have abandoned any notion that the center of the political universe is worth trying to capture. Republicans, supported by the Tea Party movement, have dumped incumbent U.S. Senators in Utah and Alaska for extremely conservative alternatives. Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska were deemed "too liberal" for the party base. By the same token, three incumbent Senate Democrats faced primary challenges from the left. Blanche Lincoln and Michael Bennet, alleged to be "too moderate" survived in Arkansas and Colorado. Arlen Specter, the party-switcher, didn't make it in Pennsylvania. The bottom line: in the reddest of the red states and the bluest of the blue states, the greatest threat to incumbency has now become the threat that an office holder will get "primaried." Republican "moderates" are attacked from the right. Democrats get it from the left. Being called a moderate is about as helpful to one's political future as being called a Taliban sympathizer. This politics of the extreme left and extreme right has seen, for example, the career efforts of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson - no serious person's idea of anything other than a responsible conservative - being condemned by his own party's convention. Simpson's sin - laboring for ten years to collaboratively resolve the wilderness dispute in central Idaho. Resolving disputes is what legislators are supposed to do and it involves, in the best sense, compromise and, yes, moderation. On the left, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs lashed out recently at liberal critics of the president suggesting that they "ought to be drug tested." Gibbs said the "professional left" is just as out of touch with reality as some of the far out voices on the "professional right." More evidence of the near complete polarization of our politics. If Republicans do succeed in capturing the House, and maybe the Senate, in November they will find that the purge of the moderates will, in all likelihood, make getting anything of substance done in the next Congress virtually impossible. There are already predictions that the fault lines within the GOP will split the Tea Party crowd from the more traditional wing. Right now the party is united in opposition to Barack Obama and not united on how it might actually try to govern if given the chance. If you think Congress is dysfunctional now, and under Democratic control it has been, then stay tuned. We my not have seen anything, yet.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

This One Didn't Get Away

Honor Among Fishermen... Steve Marshburn - that's him with his wife, son and Sage fly rod - finally got his expensive fishing gear back recently and how it happened is really quite a story. Marshburn, an Army Ranger at the time, was fishing in the spring of 2005 from a float tube on Hebgen Lake near Yellowstone Park in southwestern Montana when his brand new, $1,000 rod and reel, complete with his name engraved on the reel, slipped from its perch on the tube and rapidly sank to the bottom of the lake. Marshburn was left with two memories of the trip - the three pound rainbow he caught and a belief that the rod and reel were gone forever. Enter 84-year-old Vic Redinger of Billings, Montana. Thanks to a one-in-a-million snag, the Internet and persistence, Redinger was able to return the fishing outfit, five years after it was lost, to Marshburn in Chubbuck, Idaho. The Billings Gazette has the full account and whether you have never wet a line or live to fish, you'll enjoy a sweet little story that will go some distance in restoring one's faith in basic human decency. It's as good a fish tale as you'll hear in a while. Happy Labor Day.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Communicating the Story

I'd Like to Audit This Course Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the fellow Barack Obama fired earlier this year as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is lecturing at Yale this fall. McCrystal's syllabus was published by the Yale Daily News and I've got to say it looks pretty interesting. The General, who will draw on his lengthy military career for the seminar entitled "Leadership in Operation," will lead off on September 7th with a lecture on "The Importance of Leading Differently." The notes on the seminar say the session will involve, "A description of how changes in our operating environment over the 34 years of my service have demanded changes in how organizations operate – and how leaders lead them. For the military, focus often falls too narrowly - on technological advances in weaponry and armor. But like most organizations, truly significant changes in technology, politics, media, and society overall have driven change to almost every aspect of leading. Increasingly, the product of a failure to change - is failure." McCrystal will focus on four "case studies" in his first lecture - his own career, the decision to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the American Civil War and German military strategy during World War II. Toward the end of the semester, McCrystal will lecture on “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment." That should be good. The General's downfall came, of course, after Rolling Stone published an incendiary article that featured on the record quotes from McCrystal and several members of his staff sharply questioned the ability and smarts of the President and his national security team. I have often believed that our society really has only one true meritocracy; an institution were individuals, in the vast majority of cases, advance on the basis of merit, wisdom and drive. The American meritocracy is the U.S. military. You don't get to wear four stars without knowing a few things about leadership, history, politics and human nature. The proof of the modern military's approach to merit and responsibility is Gen. McCrystal. He screwed up and lost his job. End of story. Not so in any other field of endeavor in American society. There are exceptions, of course, to the military merit story line and the U.S. military, obviously, hasn't always been a place where merit wins out. William Westmoreland and George Custer come to mind. Still, day-in and day-out, I'd put the military's merit selection up against our political selection process, as well as against corporate America and even the academy. It is very interesting that McCrystal, at least for the time being, has taken a pass on the post-military life of many retired officers. He appears not to be interested in the opportunities he surely could have to consult for a defense contractor or become a talking head pundit on cable television. Instead he'll lecture at Yale. It would be fascinating to listen in on those seminars.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Cross of Iron

A Debate About Everything Except What Matters President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office this week about the end of combat operations in Iraq. His advisers said to everyone who would listen that it was time to "turn the page" in the eighth year of the war - a longer period than U.S. involvement in World War I and II combined - and focus on the real threats to U.S. security in Afghanistan and to the need to rebuild the economy at home. It was only the second time during his increasingly troubled presidency that Obama has used the Oval Office stage to talk directly to the nation and the world. We'll see soon enough if the message got through. One certainty that is obvious, even given the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq, is that our military men and women are going to be deployed in the region for most of the rest of our lifetimes. The consequences - budgetary and otherwise - of these open-ended deployments are hardly debated in the broad sweep of American politics, but make no mistake they are intimately connected to the roaring and constant debate in Washington, D.C. over budgets, deficits and tax cuts. I've only been in the Oval Office once. Bill Clinton was president, but the real presence in that relatively small room was the ghost of everyone who has ever had the awesome and lonely responsibility that goes with sitting at that big desk in that historic house. During Obama's speech this week my thoughts turned to the last general to sit there - Ike. Dwight David Eisenhower had the good timing - or luck or whatever - to occupy "the Oval" during the 1950's. The 1950's, as David Halberstam wrote in his masterful study of the decade, was a time "captured in black and white, most often by still photographers...not surprisingly, in retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid." Eisenhower, a great general who mastered the logistics and planning of modern warfare, is often remembered for a laissez faire approach to the presidency. True enough in some respects. Eisenhower was slow off the mark on civil rights and his silence for too long on the excesses of Joe McCarthy have appropriately earned him low makes from historians. However, with respect to foreign affairs and the projection of American military power, Eisenhower was anything but slow off the mark or disengaged. The common sense the general/president applied to what he famously called "the military-industrial complex" is sorely missing today. As Obama attempts to shift American attention and resources from what some have called the three trillion dollar war in Iraq to the challenge of mounting an effective counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the nation's attention is fixed firmly on other concerns. Most Americans are much more concerned about the still stumbling economy and the rising deficit than the cost and consequences of never ending war. Yet those two issues - a hugely costly war and palpable worry about the economy and debt - can't help but be related. Perhaps because we don't like to confront the cause and effect of ultra-expensive wars and the mountain of debt we face, we struggle with the cognitive dissonance of holding two conflicting thoughts in our political minds at the same time. We seem to think, and few in Congress seem willing to debate the truth of the thought, that we can pursue trillion dollar wars and contain the budget and growing debt at the same time. The details of the federal budget - so often commented upon, but so seldom understood - can bring on the MEGO effect - My Eyes Glaze Over, but the numbers do matter. An excellent recent piece in Commonweal magazine lays it out in grim detail. Ronald Osborn, a Bannerman Fellow with the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California, wrote the Commonweal piece. Here is part of the context Osborn provides on how military spending and the cost of ours wars is helping drive us into fiscal quick sand. "The federal budget for 2010 is about $3.5 trillion," Osborn writes. "Of this amount, $2.2 trillion consists of 'nondiscretionary' spending, or items that must be paid for by prior law, including Social Security ($695 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($743 billion), and interest on the national debt ($164 billion). These costs are all expected to rise exponentially in the coming years as the baby-boom generation enters retirement. The remaining $1.3 trillion of the federal budget is not mandated by prior law but disbursed according to our elected officials' priorities. This is the government's 'discretionary spending.' Of this amount, about $534 billion will be given in 2010 to the Department of Defense and another $55 billion to Veterans Affairs. Defense spending does not include, however, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counted as separate items in the budget under the category of 'contingency operations.' In 2010 alone, the wars are slated to cost taxpayers an additional $205 billion, including $76 billion in supplemental spending for 2009 expenses. And the 2011 budget, which increases the DOD's base budget by $20 billion and the budget for the wars by another $30 billion, already includes a $33 billion supplemental request to cover 2010 war costs." Eyes glazed over yet? There is more. "Even excluding 'black operations,' whose budgets are kept secret from the public but nearly doubled in the Bush years to an estimated $32 billion, as well as other programs with strong military overlays (such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, whose annual budget has grown to $43 billion), and leaving out the supplemental war spending this year that will appear only on next year's books, military related spending in 2010 will total well over $700 billion - approximately 55 percent of all discretionary spending. The United States will spend nearly as much this year on its military as the rest of the world combined; and America together with its NATO allies will account for about 70 percent of global military spending." Osborn next points out the obvious, but regularly neglected fact that most of that spending is financed by debt. And it is not the debt of my parent's generation. Mom and Dad bought war bonds. We borrow from China and Japan. If you believe, as most rational folks do, including the co-chairs of the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that spending must be cut and revenues (make that taxes) increased if we are to begin to bring the deficit under control, then it just doesn't compute to leave the costs of the endless wars floating out in budget never-never land, untouched and essentially ignored. Ike, the old general, knew something about military spending. After all, he planned and executed the two most impressive - and costly - Allied initiatives of World War II - the North Africa invasion in 1942 and the Normandy landings in 1944. Yet Eisenhower would argue in the first year of his presidency, 1953, that a permanent war economy "is not a way of life at all, in any true sense," but, "humanity hanging from a cross of iron." One of Eisenhower's better biographers, Michael Korda, has noted the irony of Ike's famous farewell warning about America becoming a "garrison state" as a result of what he saw, even in 1960, as the growing influence of "the military-industrial complex." After all, Eisenhower had spent the vast majority of his adult life as part of the vast complex that he had played such a pivotal role in mobilizing to win a war. "Yet as early as 1945," Korda writes, "when he had argued against using the atomic bomb on the Japanese, (Eisenhower) was beginning to have doubts about the immense influence of defense contracting and new weapons systems over American politics and policies...the day after his (farewell) speech he complained about the proliferation of advertisements in the pages of American magazines showing Atlas and Titan rockets, as if they were the only things Americans knew how to make." The next time you hear a political leader - Republican or Democrat - lament the cost of "entitlements" like Social Security or Medicare, while arguing for further or continuing tax cuts, ask yourself whether we can ever get the nation's fiscal house in order without addressing the real elephant in the budget room, what the last general to sit in the Oval Office called America's permanent war economy.