Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Moral Test

Hard Cases "The moral test of government 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." The quote is most often attributed to the liberal icon Hubert Humphrey and dates to a time when there was a broad consensus in American life that government had a very precise role to play in trying to improve the plight of those fellow citizens "in the shadows of life." The lingering Great Recession more than ever has called that role of government into question and, at the same time, made Hubert's eloquent quote more relevant than ever. A massive human hurt is unfolding in nearly every state as governors and state legislators contemplate unprecedented reductions in spending on various services paid for at the state level by Medicaid. In states like Idaho, all the easy stuff has been cut. Now the real pain begins, as illustrated by the estimated 1,000 Idahoans who showed up on Friday, some in wheelchairs, to show state legislators, more eloquently than words ever could, just what the American social safety net really means to real people. With the 50 states collectively facing a budget gap estimated at $125 billion, the New York Times reports today that Medicaid is "ripe for the slashing" from New York to California, from Idaho to Texas. The times are tough - very tough - but I doubt that even tough-minded, fiscally conservative legislators can live with the implications of ending services for a guy in a wheelchair or an 8th grader with autism. In Idaho, 20 lawmakers, the members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), make most every spending decision for the rest of the 85 members of the legislature. It is an awesome power and responsibility. The committee has co-chairs, Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell, and no one has ever credibly accused these experienced lawmakers of being big spenders. They run a tidy ship and one has to be impressed with the diligence they and their committee have lavished on the hard choices the state faces with both Medicaid and education. Cameron and Bell deserve a lot of praise for showing the political courage to open up the committee to those thousand people who came calling on Friday. It had to have been a sobering experience for anyone paying attention. Here's a fearless prediction. Arguably the most conservative legislature in the nation won't be able to make the $25 million in Medicaid cuts that Idaho's governor has proposed. It will take a while yet for the reality to sink in, its still early in the legislative process, but Friday was an important day. Not only did the thousand show up, but the budget numbers that have been in dispute since the first day of the 2011 session just gained some clarity and not in a good way. All this will eventually lead to a frantic search for some barely acceptable source of new revenue to help plug the budget holes. The legislature will come to embrace, in tried and true fashion, the method of patch and scratch tax policy making. Some how, some way, Idaho's very conservative legislature will "find" some new revenue to avoid these awful choices. It won't be easy, and people elected never to raise taxes will anguish over the choices, but it will happen I think. Idaho's lawmakers have come face-to-face with their fellow citizens who really do, through no fault of their own, live in the shadows. In the end, it will not really be much of a political test. No one is likely to lose an election by making a vote to preserve home care services for an elderly, wheelchair bound neighbor. It will be quite a moral test, however, for lawmakers who infrequently see so clearly the impact of their votes.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Now We Know - Maybe

Legislate Then Investigate The commission investigating the causes of the "worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" has issued its report and - big surprise - the group split along partisan lines. Democrats issued a majority report, while Republicans offered their own take on who and what was to blame for the Great Recession; the recession that is technically over, but still seems to hang around like a relative who just doesn't know when to leave once the Thanksgiving dinner is over. One of the better bits of analysis of the huge report is from former Bush speechwriter David Frum. Frum writes: "The report...argues that everything that people needed to know was there to be known. The crisis was not a 'hurricane': It was more like a housefire in a home where people routinely smoked in bed." And there's this: "Americans withdrew $2.0 trillion in home equity between 2000 and 2007. At a time of stagnating incomes for most Americans, the housing boom financed the appearance of economic progress – one reason government was so reluctant to act. Minus the housing bubble, I doubt very much that President Bush would have been re-elected in 2004." If you really want to get into this analysis, here are some terrific charts that help to break up the hard facts into somewhat understandable chunks. One of the striking conclusions you reach in reviewing this new report and in reading the mountain of writing that has been produced in books and articles is that many of the so called Titans of Wall Street had, at best, a weak grasp on the facts of the situation facing the economy, not to mention detailed knowledge of what was happening in their own institutions. One juicy headline from the Commission's work is the admission by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, an academic scholar of the Great Depression by the way, that 12 of the 13 major Wall Street financial firms were at the very brink of failure late in 2008. Unfortunately the work of the Commission, tainted by the lack of political consensus, is likely to take us no where in particular. The hopes that a rational, coherent explanation of what cause the economic collapse would lead to a careful reassessment of whether more regulation is needed, whether the biggest of the big banks are too big, etc. just hasn't happened. In fact, unlike the justly celebrated Pecora Commission in the early 1930's that lead to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the passage of banking regulation that, seems to me, served us pretty well for the rest of the century, Congress legislated before the Commission reported. Hope they got it right. Here is some sobering news for the week just ending, the week that saw the Dow top 12,000 and in which it was reported that a Wall Street hedge fund manager personally made $5 billion in profits last year, "Our financial system is really not very different today in 2011 than it was in the run up to this crisis." That quote comes from one of the commission members, Byron Georgiou, who spent the last year trying to understand why we came so close to complete economic disaster; a disaster that has done so much short- and long-term damage to so many people. Here's hoping we aren't setting ourselves up for an even more devastating Round Two.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Odds and Ends

Of No Particular Importance... Most major league baseball teams have pitchers and catchers report to spring training round about Feb. 14. It doesn't mark the end of winter, but perhaps the beginning of the end and that is something. Boston has had 50 inches of snow this winter. Do you think Red Sox fans are anxious for spring? I'm still nursing the hurt over the Diamondbacks and Rockies abandoning Tucson in favor of another spring training outpost in the Phoenix suburbs. So much for old school. Baseball in the spring has been a fixture in Tucson since 1946. Not this year. The D-backs and Colorado will share a spanking new ballpark - Salt River Fields. I'm boycotting and plan on seeing the hapless Cubs in Mesa, the A's in their venerable little band box in Phoenix and the World Champions in downtown Scottsdale. Hope springs eternal in the spring. Everyone is in first place on opening day. Kennedy Memories My old friend Joel Connelly had a nice piece recently at the Seattle P-I's online site on memories of John Kennedy in the Northwest. Joel, a great recorder of the region's political lore, relates a wonderful story about JFK and legendary Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson. The Times on the Times I've long believed the single most difficult thing for "the media" to do is to report on itself. Most reporters and editors are generally loathe to criticize each other, unless its someone like Bill O'Reilly tweaking Keith Olbermann. That makes this story in the New York Times reporting on dissatisfaction in Los Angeles with the L.A. Times so interesting. Here's the money quote. The NYT's media critic quotes a long-time LA Times reader as saying: “We need a paper that’s more, and this is less. I think it’s just not a world-class paper, no matter how you cut it. It used to be a world-class paper.” Analysis and comment at the Columbia Journalism Review site further dissects the Times coverage of the Times. My take: I have long admired both papers and have had my gripes with each, but the LA Times is today a far cry from what it was when Otis Chandler was in charge. Sargent Shriver Lots of memorials, appropriately, to the first man JFK put in charge of the Peace Corps - Sargent Shriver. The wake for the very Catholic Shriver was a classic sad and hilarious recalling of his quite remarkable life. The serious side of Shriver is well summarized in a nice piece by Richard Reeves and the funniest story was told in Adam Clymer's tribute at the Daily Beast. Clymer told a story he attributed to Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, a longtime friend of Shriver's. "One afternoon [Shrum] and Shriver arrived at the Shriver home as Eunice was running a Special Olympics event. She had put out a wine punch for the athletes' parents. Sarge sampled it and asked what wine was used. A servant said Eunice had told them to just take anything handy. They had opened a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild '48, a gift from Giscard d'Estaing, president of France when Shriver served as ambassador. Shrum reports that Shriver was momentarily nonplussed, but then smiled and said, 'Then we'd better drink a lot of it.'" I have no idea what a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild '48 is worth, but a bottle of '82 sold at a wine auction in 2009 for $3,300. The 1948 vintage is rated as a "moderate to good vintage." That was some wine punch.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Heir Apparent

There's a Trend Here... Now that Idaho's statewide elected officials have taken the oath of office for the next four years, we can safely start the speculation about four years from now. You won't find many "political observers" in Idaho who wouldn't make book on the fact that the state's current Lt. Gov. Brad Little is the prohibitive favorite to be the state's next chief executive when current Gov. Butch Otter is ready to ride to the sunset. While Gov. Otter is, appropriately, receiving most of the attention at the moment as the state struggles with another year of bleak revenue forecasts, shrinking budgets and many, many tough decisions, Little grabbed a bit of the political spotlight with a very well attended fundraising breakfast in Boise on January 7. That just happened to be the morning that he, Otter and the rest of the statewide electeds were sworn in for their new terms. While it is dangerous to assume anything in politics, I'm betting that nearly everyone at the Lt. Governor's breakfast earlier this month entertains the expectation that the affable Little is the odds-on heir apparent. After all, while taking nothing away from his obvious political talents and demonstrated appeal, Little seems to be part of the now established trend in Idaho of the "Light" Governor having the leg up on moving up. Four of the last six Idaho governors, including Otter, have served as Lt. Governor before gaining the big job. This trend really began when John Evans succeeded Cecil Andrus in 1977 when Andrus went to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Before Evans got his chance to move into the big office in the west wing of the Statehouse, you have to go all the way back to Arnold Williams in the late 1940's to find an Idaho Lt. Governor who become Governor. Andrus returned to the governorship in 1986 and Phil Batt, who had been Lt. Governor under Evans, followed him. Jim Risch, now in the U.S. Senate, was appointed Lt. Governor and moved up when Dirk Kempthorne went to the Bush cabinet. Then it became Otter's turn in 2006. Kempthorne is the outlier in this group. He went from the U.S. Senate to the governorship, the first person in Idaho history to do that. Interestingly, only one Idahoan, three-term GOP Gov. Bob Smylie, moved up from the Attorney Generals' office. Prior to Evans moving up in the 1980's, conventional wisdom held that the surest road to the governorship was through the state legislature. Andrus made that move, as did Don Samuelson before him. In fact, of the 19 men who have served as Idaho's governor since 1920, 13 of them served in the legislature before becoming governor. So, you want to be governor of Idaho - this sounds simpler than it is - do your time in the state legislature, as Little has done (the Senate is a generally a better stepping stone than the House) and then get yourself elected to the Number Two job. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics - nothing - but that path is now pretty well-worn in Idaho.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


We Fought a War Over This... As Idaho and a half dozen other states prepare legislation to attempt to "nullify" the federal health care law, including apparently sanctions against anyone trying to implement the law, it may be worth remembering that 150 years ago this week the future President of the Confederacy stood on the floor of the United States Senate and spoke his farewells. A good part of Sen. Jefferson Davis' speech on Jan. 21, 1861 was devoted to the doctrine of nullification. His home state of Mississippi was leaving the Union, Davis said, and, in his mind at least, it naturally followed that he had to leave the Senate of the United States. Davis explained his theory of his duties as a citizen and made it clear that his allegiance to Ole Miss came before his country. "If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation," he said, "or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action." My state right or wrong, apparently. Davis went on at some length to draw a distinction between what he and Mississippi were doing - leaving the Union - and the theory, widely advanced in the 1830's by John C. Calhoun, of nullification. "Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles," Davis said. "Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application." In his somewhat tortured assessment of nationhood, Davis explained what Calhoun was trying to do by advocating nullification, or as he described it a state "assuming to judge for itself." "It was because of [Calhoun's] deep-seated attachment to the Union - his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States - that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement. "Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the states are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever." In other words, disunion in the mind of Jefferson Davis was a logical follow on to nullification for a sovereign state. The trouble with Idaho's approach to this fundamental Constitutional guestion is that it neglects a good slice of the last 150 years of American history; those years since Davis made his passionate defense of state's rights. Our ancestors fought a bloody and protracted Civil War to resolve these very questions. As a result, the United States became a singular nation, as the great historian Shelby Foote loved to point out. Prior to Lee's surrender to Grant in 1865, it was common to refer to the "United States are." But our history and our courts have consistently held since that the "United States is." Still, every few years nullification comes roaring back. During the civil rights era, ten different southern states sought to nullify the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ultimately ruled in 1958 in Cooper v. Aaron that the Brown ruling, ending segregation, could "neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation." Idaho's foremost Constitutional scholar, Dr. David Adler, recently told the Associated Press that nullification proponents are conveniently overlooking a lot of our history. "The premise of their position and the reasoning behind it are severely flawed and have no support in our Constitutional architecture," Adler said. In their zeal to overturn an act of Congress, the proponents of nullification cite, as Jefferson Davis did on the brink of the Civil War, the "high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited," not to mention the wisdom of Jefferson and Madison. Funny, they rarely mention that old fire breather, Calhoun. Through a terrible Civil War and on through the long and continuing struggle for civil rights, the United States gradually and imperfectly became one country of many states. Through elections and court cases, debate and discourse, we have arrived at a federal government that makes laws and attempts, not always ably, to apply them fairly to all the people. If folks don't like those laws, they do have recourse - legal recourse. They can sue in the courts, as Idaho has done over the health care legislation, or they can have an election to change the Congress. Neither available legal approach, historically or Constitutionally, sanctions nullification. Maybe that is so because wise leaders, at least since Jefferson Davis, have been able to see where such a doctrine logically can lead. The great Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion in Aaron more than 50 years ago and captured the essence of what is at sake in preserving our federal system. "Lincoln's appeal to 'the better angels of our nature' failed to avert a fratricidal war," Frankfurter wrote in 1958. "But the compassionate wisdom of Lincoln's First and Second Inaugurals bequeathed to the Union, cemented with blood, a moral heritage which, when drawn upon in times of stress and strife, is sure to find specific ways and means to surmount difficulties that may appear to be insurmountable."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Great Political Reads

A Top Ten List Legislatures are in session, the president is poised to deliver the State of the Union and we just marked the 50th anniversary of JFK's inaugural. All politics all the time. So...writing recently about Richard Ben Cramer's political classic What It Takes got me thinking about some of my favorite political reads. Here, in no particular order, is a Top Ten List of Political Reads - or a Top Eleven counting Cramer's tome, which has to be on any list of mine. Here goes. 1. Truman by David McCullough. Certainly among the greatest political biographies, McCullough won the Pulitzer for his great writing and research and this booked helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Man from Missouri. 2. They Also Ran by Irving Stone. This is the fascinating story of the men who ran for president and lost. In chapter length profiles, Stone groups these "losers" into categories like "Generals Die in the Army" and "Wall Street Lawyers." This classic was published in 1943, so it ends with the story of that "loser" Wendell Willkie who, with the full benefit of hindsight, seems to have been a remarkable man. In fact, Stone makes a compelling case that many of those who ran for the White House and lost were every bit as able - and often better - than those who won. 3. Shooting Star by Tom Wicker. There are many, many good books about controversial Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but if you read just one you will find none better than Wicker's little volume. The great one-time New York Times writer establishes McCarthy in his times with all his well-documented excesses, but also offers a nuanced view - too nuanced for some critics - of McCarthy's troubled personality. This is a critical book, but also fair and full of color sustained by the perspective of a political reporter who knows politics and politicians. 4. Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. Another biography, this one exhaustive, of another demagogue. Long was a brilliant Louisiana communicator/politician who rose from humble beginnings to command a virtual state dictatorship. Williams' book is highly readable and, some would argue, more sympathetic to the Kingfish than it should be, but it is also a classic work of political history. By 1935, Long had become a national figure - his radio speeches were powerful, funny and frightening. He also became a threat from the left to Franklin Roosevelt's re-election. Long's life ended in September 1935 in a hail of gunfire in the hallway of the capitol building he had built in Baton Rouge, but the Long dynasty survived. The Long family produced another governor, a congressman and Huey's senator son Russell who, like his papa, was one of the great political figures in the history of the United States Senate. 5. Advice and Consent by Allen Drury. Drury was a Congressional correspondent when he wrote his classic 1959 novel about a bitter Senate confirmation battle. The book has lasting appeal as a look inside the exclusive club, complete with deals, double crosses, sex, scandal and statesmanship. 6. Senator Mansfield by Don Oberdorfer. Montana's Mike Mansfield was a great Senator and perhaps, with apologies to Lyndon Johnson, the most constructive Senate Majority Leader in history. In former Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer's masterful biography, Mansfield emerges as a great thinker and a profoundly decent man; the model of a modern senator. 7. The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray. It is hard to believe these days, with our national political conventions little more than carefully choreographed TV commercials, that years ago the conventions were great political theatre where presidential candidacies were both born and buried. In 1924, Democrats took an unbelievable 103 ballots to nominate a compromise candidate John W. Davis who, not surprisingly, took the horribly divided party to disastrous defeat. That convention - one observer noted that Democrats had taken a week to commit political suicide - is detailed in Murray's colorful history, complete with the KKK, prohibition, religion and, did I mention, large doses of bare knuckle politics. 8. Five Days in Philadelphia by Charles Peters. There have been, I think, two absolutely pivotal presidential elections in American history: 1864 when Lincoln was re-elected and thereby able to prosecute the Civil War to its ultimate end and 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term and a chance to lead the country away from isolationism. Peters' great little book centers on the GOP nominating process in 1940 and the convention in Philadelphia that nominated Wendell Willkie. Willkie was the last true "dark horse" to win a presidential nomination. 9. Mick - The Real Michael Collins by Peter Hart. I'm both fascinated and repelled by the complex and frequently awful history of modern Irish politics. Any effort to understand the complex tale of modern Ireland must include the story of the great Irish Republican leader Michael Collins. Collins was both general and politician, but mostly brilliant political strategist and manager. He was also clever, ambitious, brave and brutal. He lost his life during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Collins had a pivotal role in the negotiations with the British - the British delegation included Winston Churchill - that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty helped secure Irish independence, but was so unpopular with some that it also precipitated the civl war. As a practical, pragmatic peacemaker, Collins defended the treaty and knew that in doing so he might well have written his death warrant. Nearly 90 years after his death, Collins' grave in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery is still every day festooned with fresh flowers. 10. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. Caro's monumental, multi-volume biography of LBJ is notable for the vast reach of his research, but also for his unrelenting (and at times unfair) critique of Johnson's remarkable career. Still, the third volume on Johnson's years as Senate Majority Leader, is as good a portrait of the Senate as any every crafted. The publication of the final volume of Caro's nearly life-long work on Johnson will be a major milestone, but who knows when he'll be finished with it. Caro took 12 years to write Master of the Senate. It is a huge book and hugely important. There you have it - a Top Ten list for a political junkie.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fifty Years Ago...

Kennedy Library Launches Website The Kennedy Presidential Library has launched a fabulous new website - - to mark the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of our 35th president - a half century ago this very day. The site is organized by both subject matter and by a timeline of the Kennedy presidency. Take a minute to visit and walk through the historic events of 50 years ago. This is a great presentation of history and a remarkable use of the tools of modern communication. Two words: great stuff.

And more...

Kennedy's best biographer, Robert Dallek, has a great piece at the Salon website today. Dallek asks "why do we admire a president who did so little?"

His answer, in part, is to compare Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, two masters of communication.

Says Dallek: "Like T.R.'s bully pulpit and FDR's fireside chats, Kennedy’s press conferences, which underscored his personal charm, wit, youth and intelligence, and Reagan’s talents as the 'great communicator' are enduring parts of their legacies.

"Unlike Washington and Lincoln, whose reputations rest respectively on building and preserving the nation, Kennedy and Reagan, to borrow a phrase from the historian Richard Hofstadter, were and remain the master psychologists of the middle classes."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Speeches Week

Eisenhower, Kennedy and King It is Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, a good day to remember Dr. King's remarkable impact on the evolution of American notions about civil rights and to acknowledge the work that remains. And, even though King made his most famous speech in August, no MLK Day is complete without remembering one of the great speeches ever delivered in the English language, his "I Have a Dream Speech" from 1963. This week also marks the 50th anniversary of two other truly memorable speeches - Dwight Eisenhower's farewell were he warned of the rise of the "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" and John F. Kennedy's inaugural where he summoned the nation to "ask not" what the country can do for us. Remarkably these two speeches - delivered just three days apart in January 1961 - speak to us still across half a century. Eisenhower, the popular president and former five star general, it is now clear, labored at length over his final speech from the White House considering it, as his grandson says, a significant part of his legacy of public service. Fifty years later, with the American military engaged in two wars and the nation's enormous power projected in every corner of the world, Eisenhower's words speak an enduring truth and, like Kennedy, he called the country to informed, engaged citizenship. As David Eisenhower told NPR over the weekend, his grandfather's "farewell address, in the final analysis, is about internal threats posed by vested interests to the democratic process. But above all, it is addressed to citizens — and about citizenship." Kennedy's great speech, delivered on January 20, 1961, can be read as a companion piece to the speech of his predecessor and it was also about citizenship and responsibility. Speaking in the context of the nuclear arms race with the then-Soviet Union, Kennedy said: "So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." Those words, in the context of our domestic politics today, certainly ring true. In the age of Twitter and text messages some might argue that the spoken word or political rhetoric has lost its power to inform and stimulate. Three classic speeches we remember this week leave us with an entirely different message. Enduring truth, delivered with genuine conviction and deeply imbuded with knowledge, is always powerful. As Dr. King so powerfully said: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." All three great Americans spoke in their most famous speeches to "the ultimate measure of a man" and their words live on.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Billy Collins

The History Teacher When I saw the story that Idaho's State School Superintendent Tom Luna had pulled a pop history quiz on lawmakers on the legislature's education committees, and that 17% couldn't name the year Idaho became a state and that 15% didn't know Lewiston was the original capital, I thought immediately of Billy Collins' wonderful little poem - The History Teacher. Trying to protect his students' innocence he told them the Ice Age was really just the Chilly Age, a period of a million years when everyone had to wear sweaters. And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age, named after the long driveways of the time. The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more than an outbreak of questions such as "How far is it from here to Madrid?" "What do you call the matador's hat?" The War of the Roses took place in a garden, and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan. The children would leave his classroom for the playground to torment the weak and the smart, mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses, while he gathered up his notes and walked home past flower beds and white picket fences, wondering if they would believe that soldiers in the Boer War told long, rambling stories designed to make the enemy nod off.

Idaho became a state in 1890, by the way.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


A Good Dose of Humility My favorite presidential historian, Robert Dallek, as well as anyone has, caught the essence of last night's remarkable speech in Tucson by Barack Obama. "The president is not just the prime minister, he's also the king," says Dallek. "And he has to be a healing force to speak to the grief." As a time when pundits, critics and pretenders to the Oval Office were wondering whether Obama had the right stuff to pull off a unifying speech in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, he came up with, I think, just the right tone and several great lines, including this one: "What we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another." TIME magazine has a great take on the demanding, delicate job of the President as Consoler-in-Chief. While it may be hard to make the case that any one speech from any one president really has lasting impact in this superheated media age, think of the lasting impact of Lincoln at Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger disaster or Clinton after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. A pitch-perfect, heartfelt speech of mourning, as each of those were, has historically helped define a presidency. Obama's speech at McKale Memorial Center in Tucson may prove to be the moment when the nation sized him up as a leader and not just as a politician.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Giffords Story

The Whole World is Watching "Anger, hatred, bigotry" - the headline in the Sydney, Australia Morning Herald. "A disturbing story about American political culture" - said the editorial in the Globe and Mail, Canada's major national newspaper. A blogger for the Financial Times writes, "The idea that there is anything in common between the politics of the United States and Pakistan might seem absurd. But both countries have suffered appalling acts of political violence this week. And in both cases, the victims were moderate voices who spoke out for liberal values." While the debate continues in U.S. newspapers and over the air about the cause and meaning of the tragic attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson last Saturday, the press in the rest of the world is watching and commenting. It is a fascinating case study in how the U.S. is seen by much of the rest of the world. A while back I heard a speaker who had lived in Canada for a number of years quip that "Canada is the place where everyone has health insurance and no one has a hand gun." There was nervous laughter from the U.S. crowd. The Globe and Mail's editorial on the Tucson shootings got quickly to its point: "Start with guns: Legally, they are sacrosanct. And not just any guns. In Arizona, any 'law-abiding' person over 21 is allowed to carry a concealed handgun practically anywhere in the state, including into the state legislature, in bars and on school grounds." In a round-up of world coverage of the story, the GlobalPost site noted: "Argentina’s biggest daily, Clarin, published a 500-word piece by their Washington correspondent, Ana Baron, who focused heavily on Arizona’s tough stance on Latino immigration and what she described as the 'growth of hatred and intolerance in U.S. politics.' Perhaps tellingly, the story’s first quote was Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik’s widely-recounted remark that his home state of Arizona has become a 'Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.'" The same site noted that Britain's politically-oriented print media covered the shootings as political commentary. The right-leaning Daily Telegraph criticized American blogs and liberals for rushing to paint the attacks as a product of a right-wing fanatic despite the lack of evidence that the shooter had anything to do with the Tea Party or any other group. "This is highly inconvenient for certain people on the Left so they ignore it," wrote the paper's Washington editor. "They would much prefer the shooter to have been a white male in his 50s." Outside of Britain, the GlobalPost site notes, "the story has received slightly less attention. The French press is consumed by the murder of two Frenchmen murdered in Niger by an African subsidiary of Al Qaeda. The German press has major flooding along the Rhine to contend with. "But the lack of prominence given to the story could be down to this: For many in Europe, violence of the sort that occurred in Tucson on Saturday is almost expected in America." Major media outlets in the U.S. provided prominent coverage over the last several days to the assassination - and that word was always used and interestingly has generally been avoided in the coverage of the Gifford's shooting - of a major political figure in Pakistan, indisputably a country with enormous strategic importance to the United States. The lead in the Washington Post, for example, said of the Pakistani killing, in words that might have been lifted from an article about Rep. Giffords: "an outspoken liberal in an increasingly intolerant nation, was shot..." because of his public stance on a controversial issue. As the Financial Times writer, Gideon Rachman, pointed out it is not all that comfortable to be compared to the dysfunctional, frequently violent politics of Pakistan, but there we are. Rachman wrote on Sunday: "Of course, the relative reactions to political violence in both countries show that Pakistan is much, much further down the road of violent intolerance. This profoundly depressing report by Mohammed Hanif illustrates how cowed liberal and tolerant voices now are in Pakistan, where many television commentators essentially argued that the governor of Punjab had it coming to him. "In the US, by contrast, all mainstream politicians and commentators are united in condemning the attempted murder of Giffords. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies." Indeed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson

Politics, Guns and America President Obama spoke for most Americans yesterday, as presidents do when tragedy strikes and something truly senseless happens, when he said we "would get to the bottom" of the horrific events on a sunny Saturday morning outside a Safeway store in Tucson. Get to the bottom indeed. We all tend to measure the impact of big events by the closeness of personal connection. For me, this one is close and truly does, as Tucson resident and former Bush Administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, make your heart bleed. I spend a good deal of time in Tucson. Our place is less than two miles from where the mayhem that took six lives, including a respected federal judge and a nine year old girl, took place. I've been in that Safeway store a hundred times, often on a sunny Saturday morning, to get my daily newspaper fix. I've also followed from a distance the promising political rise of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who now fights for her life not to mention a chance for a further political career. Before going to Congress, Giffords represented parts of Tucson in the state legislature and struck me - regardless of your partisan tint - as the kind of bright, well-spoken, committed young person we want and desperately need in our politics. While it is much too early to come to judgments about the motive - if any - of the apparently badly troubled young man who is in custody and accused, perhaps with unidentified others, as the murderer. It is nonetheless inevitable that getting to the bottom of this American tragedy will turn to politics and guns. It is already being asked if our American political culture has become so coarse, so bitter and tinged with the language of violence that such events directed at political people are made more possible. An eyewitness to the Tucson events said there was no doubt the gunman's real target was the Congresswoman. The wise and experienced old sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik - he's been sheriff for 30 years and is respected for his blunt candor - said it explicitly. "Let me say one thing," the 73-year old Dupnik told reporters yesterday, "because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by the people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences." Dupnik, in sadness and in anger, said Arizona has become "a Mecca" for intolerance and bigotry. This much we know. Giffords' Tucson office was vandalized during the intense blizzard of national vitriol surrounding the health care legislation, she was shouted down at town hall meetings and, by all accounts, the campaign in Arizona's 8th District last year was bitter and nasty. And, of course, Sarah Palin and others used tough language and imagery, including putting crosshairs over Giffords' district, to target her for defeat last November. Giffords made note of the Palin's actions last fall when she said, "She [Palin] depicted the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences." Palin, it must be noted, was one of the first to condemn the outrage. Ironically, Giffords was a true moderate in the House. She was a "Blue Dog" Democrat who cast a protest vote last week again Nancy Pelosi. She voted instead for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who was himself once beaten senseless in the name of politics. Giffords proudly read the First Amendment on the House floor last week during the reading of the Constitution and she was widely regarded as a calming voice in a divided district. Consequences. Words are powerful weapons and, at times, the alarming coarseness of American political rhetoric does seem seriously deranged and dangerous. Calls for civility have never seemed more timely or more necessary. The Los Angeles Times editorialized this morning calling out the truly moronic postings - from all points of view - regarding the Giffords shooting. Read it and weep again. Getting to the bottom also requires a mature society to engage in real and sober self-reflection about our culture of guns. I know, I know, this is the third rail of American politics, but finding the discussion uncomfortable or politically difficult doesn't make the self-reflection any less important. How can a culture that claims to value the sanctity of life tolerate the level of gun violence we seem to now find tolerable? Once again American politics intersects with guns and violence. Ours is a great country, but the tragedy in Tucson suggests once more many uncomfortable things about our less-than-perfect Union. We have some work to do to get to the bottom and try to learn from - and rise above - yet another horrific tragedy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Now...the News

Pew Survey: Internet Grows As News Source The new Pew Research Center report dealing with where Americans turn for their daily news fix shows, not surprisingly, that the Internet's impact is growing and newspapers are declining. Television is also in decline, while radio is essentially flat. Again, no big surprise, young people, in vast numbers, are surfing the net for news, while - as a former TV reporter I love this headline - TV news still dominates among what Pew calls "the less educated." People in the West are more likely than any other part of the country to turn to the Internet for news, but I'm guessing those numbers are skewed by "the left coast" effect of California, Oregon and Washington. Still the trends in where we seek out news are dramatic and show no signs of changing. Interesting to me, cable news and the traditional broadcast networks are both in steady decline as news sources, while local television news seems to be holding its own as a source of information. Older folks, again no big surprise, turn to television and much less to the Internet. What the survey doesn't answer is where on the Internet Americans are turning for information. Are they using the major newspaper and broadcast websites? Or are Internet news consumers turning to specialized sites that cover politics, business, energy or the environment? Or are they looking to sites like the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, websites that aggregate news with a decided slant on what is featured and how the information is packaged? Or, as I suspect, based on the trend of increasing partisanship and a "point of view" approach on cable television, are Internet consumers seeking out information that already reinforces their political or social views? This much is beyond debate it seems to me: there is no longer any comprehensive place where Americans can turn for a shared sense of what is happening in American politics and culture. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley once could gather us around the national hearth and we could share a national experience - men landing on the moon - or a national tragedy - the Kennedy assassination. No more. Pew also offers some regular analysis of what type of information Internet consumers seek. In the week between Christmas and the New Year - a pretty quiet news cycle - the top story was the seriously bad weather on the east coast. I've long subscribed to the "more is better" theory about news and information. More sources, more points of view and more delivery systems should make us smarter, more informed and better and more engaged citizens. I hope that instinct is true, but doubt it is. To make it true we must have not just consumers of news and information, but discerning, skeptical and critically thinking consumers. Other recent Pew research suggests that Americans have a 30,000 foot view of the issues and challenges facing the country. We know a few basic facts, but very few details. Americans aren't big on nuance. We know, for example, that the GOP made big gains in Congress, but not what those new members really intend to do, or even that the Republicans won control of the House. We know that BP ran the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, but no idea about who serves as the British Prime Minister. We know the budget deficit is a big problem, but have no idea where all that money is being spent. And, John Boehner. Whose he? There is clearly a tremendous amount of information out there on the Internet, cable and broadcast television, even in shrinking newspapers, but the jury is out as to whether all that information, in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, is making us any smarter or better able to understand and engage the world. That, in a modern democracy, seems to me to be a real problem.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

That's Accountability

If All Government Operated This Way Accountability, at least most of the time, is sure and swift in the United States military. Just ask Captain Owen Honors, who has been sacked as the C.O. of one of the U.S. Navy's most prestigious sea commands. By now most everyone has heard the story of how Honors, as the then-Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hosted racy videos with homophobic, sexual and other offensive content that were broadcast during "movie nights" on the big aircraft carrier. He subsequently became the Commanding Officer of the Enterprise, the videos came to light and his career is as ruined as it would have been if he had run his ship aground in San Francisco bay. The certainty of consequences for bad behavior or unethical conduct is one of the reasons that order, morale and effectiveness remain as high as they do in our all-volunteer military, while at the same time two wars and countless deployments have made military life incredibly difficult for thousands of young American men and women. As I read about the Captain's truly silly behavior - and, yes, I admit to finding the videos on YouTube and did take a look - I thought about the relative lack of accountability for bad behavior or performance on the civilian side of our government. It is a truly bipartisan problem. Take your pick: the Treasury Secretary's failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, various senators in both parties with ethical problems ranging from sweetheart home loans to sexual peccadilloes, heck even a former New York governor now has a prime time show on cable while the documentary about his frequent visits with prostitutes runs in theaters. Closer to home, a sitting Idaho state representative remains dogged by his tax problems and an Idaho tax commissioner operates under an ethical cloud. Some might argue that the standards applied to the Captain of the Enterprise are a little harsh give the frat boy nature of his offense. Still, the Navy's top brass demanded accountability - and swiftly - and not for the first time. When the Captain's boss "lost confidence" in him, he walked the plank - immediately. Admiral John Harvey, in announcing that the can was tied to the Enterprise's video host, talked about the Navy's determination to maintain its values of "honor, courage and commitment." Officers, Admiral Harvey said, simply must be held to the highest standards. The military code of conduct system demands it. End of story. In the wake of his own bad behavior, Eliot Spitzer got his own television show. Increasingly, it seems, the American political system allows that sort of "accountability." Little wonder then why the American public gives the military high approval ratings, while the public approval of Congress and other governmental institutions sinks to all-time lows. No accountability, no confidence.