Monday, February 28, 2011

One of the Greats

James Albertus McClure, 1924-2011 History will record that Sen. Jim McClure, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was one of the most significant politicians in Idaho's history. A staunch Republican conservative, McClure nonetheless was liked and respected by those across the political spectrum, but beyond that he accumulated a record of accomplishment that has lasting impact. A strong advocate for the natural resources industries so important to Idaho, McClure also saw the need to resolve long-standing debates over wilderness designation in his native state. He worked out the boundary lines of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area by spreading maps on the floor of the governor's office and getting on his hands and knees with Democrat Cecil D. Andrus. He helped champion creation of the Sawtooth NRA and in the last days of Frank Church's life he got the iconic River of No Return Wilderness renamed for the Democrat. He fought tooth and nail to grow the Idaho National Laboratory and distinguished himself as a member of the Iran-Contra Committee investigating that scandal. As a reporter and in other capacities, I have had the chance to interview Jim McClure probably more than 20 times over the years. I never sat down with any person who was better prepared or who provided a better interview. He was candid, opinionated and always impeccable well informed. I also never saw the guy use a note card or a script. He was a marvelous extemporaneous speaker. He was also a complete gentleman. Once in Sun Valley years ago, while McClure was chairing the Senate Energy Committee, he sat for a taped interview for well more than half an hour. At the end of the session, while we were making small talk, the technical crew whispered in my ear that none of the half hour of Q and A had been recorded on tape. Gulp. I'd just wasted the time of a busy, important U.S. Senator and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Not missing a beat, McClure smiled and said, "Let's do it again." And we did. He didn't have to do that. Most would have said, sorry, but I've got to run. Obviously, I have never forgotten the kindness. One thing I'll never forget about McClure was his principled pragmatism. Never anything less than a loyal and conservative Republican, he also knew that progress often requires compromise and finding a middle ground. Such was the case when McClure again hooked up with Andrus in 1987 and spent weeks working out a comprehensive approach to the decades-long battles over Idaho wilderness. They flew around the state, spread out the maps and offended everyone - particularly their respective "base" voters. There was something in the grand compromise that everyone could hate and the McClure-Andrus approach ultimately failed. I've thought many times since that the two old pols knew they were far out in front of their constituents, but were nevertheless willing to risk political capital to try to resolve a controversy. It's easy in politics to say "no." It is much more difficult - and risky - to try to lead. McClure was a leader. I was pleased to have a hand in creating a University of Idaho video tribute to Jim McClure in 2007. You can check it out at the University's McClure Center website. In the Idaho political pantheon, McClure stands with Borah and Church as a among the greatest and most important federal officials Idaho has ever produced. He was a genuinely nice guy, too.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Symbolic Cuts

Minimal Money, Real Impact Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts. In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns - his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever - asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments. In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I'm a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget. The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon. Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers - price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans. I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don't we also need a place - for a tiny fraction of the cost - where Ken Burns' documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library? Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas - defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It's easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues. Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns' documentary. Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of "liberals." Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced. America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices - from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) - to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced. We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the "marketplace media." A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won't find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there. If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can't be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Myths and More

Somethings Just Ain't So How many times have you heard someone say - usually a politician - "Americans have the best health care in the world." Or this one - no one goes hungry in America. Or, America is the world leader in - fill in the blank. Truth be told, we aren't leading the world in much these days. Our health care is the most expensive in the world, but by almost any measure no where close to the best. And, according to a recent USDA report, fully 15 percent of Americans are now food "insecure," literally unsure where the next meal is coming from. One of the great challenges to American democracy, made particularly acute by the vast expansion of "information" available to all of us every minute of every day, is the challenge of separating what we think we know from what is really, verifiably true. Some of the myths, 51 percent of likely Republican primary voters don't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, for example, serve to warp political judgments and reinforce a constant theme of some of his opponents that Obama is "not like us." It is a myth that serves some political ends. Other myths, like the oft repeated notion that the NFL Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world, just play to the old notion that if it happens here it must be the biggest, the best, the most important. Actually, the World Cup soccer championship, thanks to a truly world-wide audience, gets more viewers than the Packers beating the Steelers. Some of the so called "mainstream media" are trying to debunk some of the myths out there. The Washington Post runs a regular feature - "Five Myths" - that puts the facts back into common myths. Its good stuff. A recent piece by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer challenged the myth that the 16th president was "just a country lawyer." He wasn't. Holzer writes: " the 1850s [Lincoln] ably (and profitably) represented the Illinois Central Railroad and the Rock Island Bridge Co. - the company that built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River - and earned a solid reputation as one of his home state's top appeals lawyers." New York Times graphic columnist Charles Blow is another of the mythbusters. His recent piece compared the United States to more than 30 other countries on the basis of the International Monetary Fund assessment of the conditions that contribute to an "advanced economy." We don't fare very well. Our income inequality has us compared - is unfavorably the word - to Hong Kong. We're doing better on unemployment than Greece or Spain, but no where near as well as Switzerland, Denmark or even Canada. With regard to life expectancy, we're not nearly as good as France, but about as good as Cyprus. Cyprus? We have the largest number of people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens of any place in the world. More than 700 per 100,000 in jail here. It's about 50 per 100,000 in Iceland. Little wonder our corrections costs are running wild. Student math achievement is - big surprise - way behind Japan, Korea and Singapore. And, food security. No one goes hungry in Belgium or Austria. We're the worst of the worst in the "advanced economy" class when it comes to food security. There is an old saying in politics that holds that you will know that a candidate for public office is in trouble when he or she starts believing their own press releases. In other words, the spin of what we'd like to be able to accomplish overtakes the reality of what we are really living. We start living myths, substituting our opinions for facts. Amid all the talk about "American exceptionalism" we struggle to separate the myths of our standing in the world from the reality of our challenges. All the while, the rest of the world is catching up, or already leading us and, in many cases, moving on. Mark Twain said, I think, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

President's Day

Great Readers James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States and by nearly universal assessment the worst we've ever had. He dithered while the Union came apart, helped precipitate Bleeding Kansas and did nothing to help Lincoln during the succession crisis in the last days of his administration. Mark Buchanan as a near complete failure...except as it turns out the guy was a great reader. The Daily Beast website has a fun series of short profiles of the presidents who were most in love with books. You would guess, of course, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and the two Roosevelts, but Buchanan or Rutherford B. Hayes? Hayes amassed a personal library of 12,000 volumes and Herbert Hoover, a very smart man and not a very effective president, had a library of rare books on obscure science subjects and many were in Latin.

The same website has a Presidential Trivia Quiz today.

Who was the first president to fly in an airplane? Hard to believe, but true, only one president is buried in Washington, D.C. and, believe it or not, Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.

So...on President's Day, a toast - a rare toast - to James Buchanan, a bad president, but a book lover. With that knowledge, he can be modestly redeemed in my eyes.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Effective and Not

Nullification or Common Sense They celebrated Jefferson Davis's inauguration yesterday in Montgomery, Alabama. Actually, it was a day late. One hundred fifty years ago Friday, Davis became the President of the Confederacy. As the Los Angeles Times noted, it was a much bigger celebration in 1961 on the centennial of the event that presaged the Civil War. Several southern governors showed up then, none did this weekend. The crowds were smaller and more people were in the ceremony than in the audience. As LA Times blogger Andy Malcolm points out, Davis - this is history, not state's rights mythology - is a curious hero for modern day southerners. He actually opposed succession, but not the "right" of a state to do so, and his wife openly opposed the war. The prickly former Mississippi Senator had a stormy tenure. He tried to micromanage the operations of southern armies in the field, advanced his favorite generals over more accomplished men and developed an uncanny ability to feud with southern governors. Still, he was the only president the south had. You go to celebration with the president you have. Apropos of the political moment in several states - Montana now seeks to nullify health care and the Endangerd Species Act - even Davis opposed nullification, arguing that just leaving the Union was a more practical and effective approach. That didn't work all that well, either. As the Idaho State Senate prepares to ignore the sound and fury of "nullification" of federal health care legislation that came over recently from the state's righters in the Idaho House, it may be worth a moment to consider how a state that depends so heavily on federal largess - INL, Mountain Home AFB, the Forest Service, irrigation projects - can wage an effective battle against the big, bad federal government. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus has a piece in the Twin Falls Times-News that makes the case for the quiet, but effective approach of applying common sense to our not infrequent battles with Washington, D.C. In short, fix problems by using the courts and the legislative arena, not by passing time wasting bills that garner big headlines, but don't fix problems. That approach is more difficult, to be sure, but it can work and have lasting results. All that lasts from the nullifiers of 150 years ago is the memory of a lost cause, the consequences of which we still struggle to put in context and understand. The real question may be, have we learned anything from that disasterous piece of American history?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bashing Teachers

Teachers as Targets Like most everyone, I suspect, I had a favorite teacher growing up. (Actually, I had a hopeless crush on my high school chemistry teacher, but that is another story and probably goes some distance to explain my very weak performance in her class.) My favorite was Mr. Parr, a history and social studies teacher and the 8th grade basketball coach. It's not an overstatement to say that John Thomas Parr changed my life. I was a pimply faced, shy, decidely underachieving, near teenager when I walked into his class. I was interested in history. He made me love it. I wanted to play basketball. He made me want to play for him. I lacked confidence. He gave it to me. I'll never forget making both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity in a game in Evanston, Wyoming. With 30 seconds left in the game, I couldn't even think of missing. I didn't want to disappoint Mr. Parr. I used to marvel at the way he used humor, a set of firm but fairly applied rules and his moral authority to handle anything that came up in class or during practice after school. Kids not only liked the guy, they wanted to do well - and do good - for him. He reflected his talents and personality back on us. What a great teacher he was. I've been thinking about Mr. Parr - he'll always be Mr. Parr to me - as I've read stories from Idaho to Wisconsin betraying an increasingly nasty undercurrent in the on-going debate over education budgets or, in the Idaho and Wisconsin cases, education "reform." Teachers as a class are getting hammered. Its both a shame and a major public policy mistake. In Wisconsin, new Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating many teacher collective bargaining rights and in response thousands of teachers have descended on the state capitol to protest. Meanwhile Democratic legislators have walked out in their own protest. In Idaho, parts of the reform proposal focus on changing the way school districts handle contracts with teachers. I've yet to see a story that links improving classroom performance to changing contracts. In both states teachers complain about being left out of the "reform" discussions. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to offer a more complicated, but perhaps ultimately better approach. At an education summit this week - collaboration, not confrontation was the theme - Duncan asked teacher unions, administrators and school board members "to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers. 'The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher [student] performance. The [labor] contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success.'" I don't know if Mr. Parr was "ruled by a labor boss" over at the local teacher union. I never thought about what he got paid or the hours he worked. It was pretty obvious the guy loved what he did. Sure there are bad teachers out there. Gosh, I suspect there are even bad investment bankers, misbehaving members of Congress, even retired NFL quarterbacks who haven't quite measured up. There are lots more Mr. Parr's, too. Getting kids better educated and creating the workforce for the 21st Century may just require that we focus on the best teachers and finding ways to make good teachers great. I'd gladly swap all the educational experts for 30 minutes with John Thomas Parr. I'm betting the old teacher and coach would have some ideas. I'm betting he'd begin with the moral authority that goes with common sense.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Still Fighting the War

That Devil Forrest This just in: Civil War still rages. From nullification battles in Idaho and several other states to a Mississippi proposal to remember Confederate cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest with a new license plate, the Civil War - it began 150 years ago in April - is still with us. For those who don't understand why the Arabs and Israelis can't get beyond their ancient disputes or scratch their heads over the "troubles" in Ireland, you need only look just below the surface of American politics and culture to appreciate that our old war is new again. We're still fighting over the cause, meaning and memory. In case you're wondering about Forrest - that's him in the uniform of a Lt. General - he rose from private to general officer during the course of the war, is generally regarded as a military genius, albeit a blood thirsty one, and was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest notoriously presided over a massacre of black Union troops at Ft. Pillow in 1864. When a Forrest statute was erected in Nashville a while back, the debate began again over whether the man historian Shelby Foote called the one true military genius of that awful war deserved to be commemorated in his home state. Now Forrest is back in the news. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a possible GOP presidential candidate, says he won't "denounce" supporters of the license plate for the general. The Associated Press quoted the guv as saying, "I don't go around denouncing people. That's not going to happen." Strangely enough Idaho and Mississippi often show up in the same paragraph. The two states, worlds apart in so many ways, often compete for worst of show in educational spending or per capita income. Now, we're competing for throwbacks to 1860. Or, as one wit said recently, Idaho has gone from being West of the Mississippi to being the Mississippi of the West. After all we do have our Secesh Creek and there is a town called Dixie. Perhaps we come by this nullificaiton impulse naturally. As a truly famous Mississippian, William Faulkner, once famously said: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Serious

Defense Cuts = Deficit Control You'll hear a lot of politicians making speeches over the next few days regarding the imperative of getting the federal budget under control. Few will, I predict, be arguing for cutting the massive U.S. defense budget. If they're not talking about defense they're just not serious. In inflation adjusted terms, we're spending more money on the Pentagon than we did during the Vietnam War. We're spending more than we spent in the first year of World War II. No kidding. Talk about something that is not sustainable, yet it is hardly seriously debated in Washington, Boise or Butte. Give credit to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for starting the conversation about the need to reduce military spending, but then give yourself a reality check. The Gates budget for next year, released today by President Obama, is $553 billion. The cranky old Republican who co-chaired Obama's deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson, calls Gates' effort to reduce - "crappy little cuts." Further reality check - that $533 billion figure does not include what will likely be another $118 billion for actually fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As McClatchy reported, the Pentagon budget for next year will "mark the 14th year in a row that Pentagon spending has increased, despite the disappearing presence in Iraq. In dollar terms, Pentagon spending has more than doubled in 10 years. Even adjusted for inflation, the Defense Department budget has risen 65 percent over the past decade." Lawrence Korb, a senior Defense Department official in the Reagan Administration, argues that the first place to start to trim the Pentagon budget is "reducing or eliminating funding for a number of unnecessary weapons programs, such as V-22 Osprey, rolling back the post-Sept. 11 growth in the ground forces and reducing the number of American forces deployed abroad outside of Iraq and Afghanistan." The U.S. maintains more than 800 military installations around the world in 46 counties. That contributes just a few bucks to the deficit we all worry about. The American Empire is costly to maintain. Fact in, in the budget language of the day, it is not sustainable. Devotees of Ronald Reagan give him credit for bring the Soviet Union to its knees, in part because the old Communist state just couldn't keep spending vast amounts on its military in an effort to keep up with us. Here an example of part of the problem. Virtually every Congressional district in the country has a financial stake - jobs, bases, contractors - who live or die by the defense budget. Hence this story from the Columbus, Ohio Dispatch - "Central Ohio dodging a bullet on defense cuts." The paper says with reference to a proposed new Marine amphibious vehicle set to be manufactured in Ohio: "...lawmakers of both parties are less willing to cut defense spending in their states, fearing that it could lead to a loss of jobs. "'I think it's necessary for our national defense,' Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek, said of the Marine vehicle. 'A lot of money has been invested in this vehicle.' "'Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that 'in some sense, it's what makes the Marines the Marines. You don't just cancel this and waste the investment ... that we've already made as taxpayers. This program needs revamping, it needs updating, it needs perhaps a different direction. But we build on this rather than canceling it.''' Translation for both Republicans and Democrats: don't cut the military budget in my state, but gosh this federal spending really is out of control. The vast U.S. military-industrial complex has a vice grip hold on our economy, but in a way that is, there's that word again, unsustainable. We're not competing with Reagan's "evil empire" anymore. Today we are the lone military superpower and have projected our military power around the world much as the British Empire did in the 1800's. As the lone superpower, we certainly spend like a superpower. Hope it doesn't bankrupt us.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nullification Crisis

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing In 1832 when the always frisky state of South Carolina objected to tariff legislation passed by the Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson, the state's leaders decided they could just ignore the federal act by invoking an "ordinance of nullification." Jackson, not for nothing called "Old Hickory," thought his fellow southerners were nipping a bit heavy into the sour mash, while flaunting the Constitution that he and they were sworn to uphold. The president sent seven U.S. warships to South Carolina waters and Jackson told the state's residents, with a certain decisiveness, that they were flirting with treason. Asked by a visiting South Carolinian if the president had any message for the good people of the Palmetto State, Jackson replied, give them my compliments and tell them if they follow through with these acts of treason, "I'll hang the first man I can lay my hand on." Soon enough South Carolina thought better of this nullification business. Cooler heads will surely prevail, as well, in frisky Idaho - likely in the state senate - after the Idaho House of Representatives has had its fun with a futile, costly and snicker-producing effort to nullify the federal health care legislation. Ignoring the official opinion of the state's Republican chief legal and law enforcement officer, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who is already suing the federal government over health care, as well as the considered judgment of one of the nation's top Constitutional scholars, Dr. David Adler, the House State Affairs committee voted 14-5 on Thursday to recommend to the full House that Idaho do what South Carolina wanted to do in 1832. At least two things are missing here: Historical perspective on the 200-plus year history of our federalist system and the kind of principled political leadership that once in a great while requires elected officials to tell the folks who elected them, sorry, you're just wrong and we can't do that. The historical perspective goes back to Jackson and even farther. The principle that any state, acting on its own motion, can chose to defy the duly constructed law of the land has been rejected time and time again in American history. The legislature can hold hearings and object, it can pass a non-binding memorial voicing its displeasure, it can sue, as Idaho has, but it just can't decide to ignore federal law. Not possible unless you subscribe to an anarchist interpretation of more than two centuries of American history. Arkansas in the 1950's tried to defy a federal court order - the law of the land - to desegregate its public schools and Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard to make certain the Constitution was upheld; to avoid anarchy, as Ike said. End of story. States cannot ignore federal law. At some point, genuine political leadership requires serious people to step back from these kinds of emotionally charged efforts and shine some light rather than stoke more heat. Understanding that some folks are mighty upset with the federal health care legislation and that many of them showed up to support the legislature's nullification approach does not abrogate an elected official's responsibility to not always play to the crowd. One of those testifying yesterday in Idaho said, according to the Associated Press account of the hearing, "We as citizens are tired of being lorded over by representatives. We're not conspiracy theorists. We aren't kooks. No one is going to force me to buy anything." It must be hard, in the face of such passion, to not get along by going along. But, once in a while it must be done. In 1946, a very conservative Republican, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, son of the former president, delivered an historic speech at Kenyon College in his home state. Taft sought out the opportunity to publicly oppose the extremely popular Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg that were just then concluding. John F. Kennedy wrote about Taft's political guts in his famous book Profiles in Courage. Here's part of what the Kennedy Library website says about Taft, a man known in his time as Mr. Republican. "To Taft, the [Nazi] defendants were being tried under ex post facto laws (laws that apply retroactively, especially those which criminalize an action that was legal when it was committed). These laws are expressly forbidden in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 9 and section 10). Taft viewed the Constitution as the foundation of the American system of justice and felt that discarding its principles in order to punish a defeated enemy out of vengeance was a grave wrong." Hardly anyone in America supported Taft's views. He knew his was speaking directly into a hurricane force wind of opposition, yet he courageously stood for principle over political expediency. "[Taft] was pilloried in the press, by his constituents, by legal experts, and by his fellow Senators on both sides of the aisle. The fallout from the speech may have also played a small part in his unsuccessful presidential bid in 1948. However, Taft so strongly believed in the wisdom of the Constitution that speaking out was more important than his personal ambitions or popularity. Many years later, William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court [a great liberal] agreed with Taft’s view that the Nuremberg Trials were an unconstitutional use of ex post facto laws." Only one Idaho Republican on the House State Affairs Committee, Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake spoke up yesterday and ultimately voted with four Democrats to oppose the nullification proposal. "It's an outright defiance of the law," Anderson said. "If we vacate that rule of law, we simply become nothing but a collection of states that decide among themselves that they're going to nullify everything that's inconvenient to them." There is a higher principle at stake here than making a useless statement about a hated health care law. Courage and political leadership, once in a while, requires an elected official to say: "I hear your concern, I may even agree with your concern, but we can't go this far." The Idaho State Senate will likely have a chance to take that stand and not follow the Idaho House in making a statement of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Unique Among 50

Nebraska's Unicameral

The great Nebraska Senator George Norris (that's him in the photo) had many ideas during his long years of public service. His ideas and his enduring reputation for decency and integrity mark him as one of the truly great figures in American politics and one of the best ever U.S. Senators.

Among other things, Norris was the "Father of the TVA" - the Tennessee Valley Authority. Unusual for a man from the prairie land of McCook, Nebraska to care about rural economic development in the American south, but Norris was a different kind of senator. He didn't believe auto builder Henry Ford should gain control of the vast hydropower resources in the Tennessee Valley and fought for public development of the resource. Norris Dam, a TVA project, carries his name. Norris also successfully pushed the Rural Electrification Act, instrumental in bringing electricity to much of rural American.

A progressive Republican, Norris was a huge supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1936, he ran as an Independent and FDR famously said: "If I were a citizen of Nebraska, regardless of what party I belonged to, I would not allow George Norris to retire from the U. S. Senate."

One of Norris's most interesting ideas resulted in my home state of Nebraska having the only one house, non-partisan state legislature in the nation. Nebraskans call it simply "the unicameral."

Norris personally conceived of the idea of eliminating one house of the state legislature - he said it was just inefficient and a wasteful duplication to have two houses doing the same thing - and, after he campaigned for the idea statewide working through two sets of tires, Nebraska voters overwhelming approved the unicameral legislature in 1934. The single house has 49 members who are called Senators. The 35-year-old Speaker of the Nebraska legislature was recently profiled in TIME magazine as one of the nation's 40 top leaders under 40 years of age.

The Nebraska system is far from perfect. No political system is. But the next time you read of a huge fight between the House and the Senate in your legislature, and those fights happen in 49 states, you'll not be reading about Nebraska. At least, George Norris took care of that problem.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Colonel Roosevelt

The Most Famous Man in the World We have become accustom to former presidents writing their memoirs, establishing the presidential library and undertaking a good cause here and there. That's what ex-presidents do. Jimmy Carter has led an exemplary post-presidential life and has, with single-minded determination, come close to eradicating a deadly disease in Africa. Bill Clinton's Foundation has focused on AIDS and third-world development with considerable success. George W. Bush is still settling into the post-White House role and reportedly his recent book has become a best-seller on, of all places, college campuses. As impressive as they have been, none of these recent ex-presidents come anywhere close to matching the life Theodore Roosevelt lived from 1909 to 1919. He packed a near lifetime of activity, scholarship, authorship and politics - including his own and many other campaigns - into the ten years after he left the White House. This amazing Roosevelt history is superbly recounted in Edmund Morris's new biography - The Colonel. The volume is the third in Morris's life of T.R. and it will doubtless stand for a long, long time as the authoritative source on the larger-than-life personality who in his time was called "the most famous man in the world." One things our recent ex-presidents are loath to do is criticize their successors. Clinton and Bush 43 have been particularly careful - we can excuse Clinton's role in stumping for his wife - not to mix their former status with current politics. Teddy had no such reservations. He literally sought every opportunity to bash his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and the man who wrenched the progressive label from him Woodrow Wilson. Yet even without his deep and prolonged forays into partisan politics post-White House, Roosevelt would have been a world celebrity on the order of, say, Bono or Michael Jackson. The guy was a rock star before we had rock stars. He seemed to know everyone and write about everything. The press of the day covered his African safari, his European tour, complete with marching in the funeral procession of England's Edward VII, his near-death expedition into the Amazon jungle and, of course, his 1912 run for the presidency that included Roosevelt being shot in Milwaukee. Were this life a novel, it simply would not be believable. We have certainly had supremely accomplished presidents since Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson earned a PhD, served as a university president and was a fine writer before the presidency. Herbert Hoover was a world-class engineer who also wrote well. John Kennedy won, with a little help from Ted Sorensen, the Pulitzer Prize. None could touch the breadth and depth of Roosevelt's writing - books, hundreds of magazine pieces, essays, speeches and letters, thousand and thousands of letters. This is a great book about a great man and, a little prediction, Morris will win another Pulitzer for producing what, as the New York Times said, "deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject." In the end, as with much great literature, T.R. story is tragedy. Roosevelt's enless agitating for American involvement in World War I served, in Morris's telling, to glorify the tragic, wasteful, useless war that came to define the 20th Century. The senseless slaughter - only later did Roosevelt come to realize that war is not glory - also cost the life of the youngest Roosevelt, Quentin, who died flying over German lines in 1918. Quentin's father, worn out and dispirited, died the next year. Theodore Roosevelt was only 60; the youngest man to ever serve as president and still and forever one of the greatest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dumping Dupnik

Tea Party Seeks Tucson Sheriff Recall It was probably inevitable given our overheated politics. The Pima County, Arizona sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, has become the target - I use that term advisedly - of a recall effort. The Arizona Daily Star's talented political cartoonist, David Fitzsimmons, sums up this news item up nicely when he has a cartoon recall supporter say, "It's really nice to see the community pulling together at a time like this." A Tucson Tea Party group claims the sheriff's post-Gabrielle Giffords shooting comments "were irresponsible and had no basis in any fact. It's not what law enforcement officers should do when inserting themselves into politics." No mention of the fact that the sheriff has been re-elected repeatedly since 1980 as a Democrat. By any fair definition, this guy is into politics, but we digress. Other supporters of the Dump Dupnik effort have charged with sheriff with being a "leftist," that he intended to protect the "shooter" or that he "hasn't enforced the law." Just the kind of broad, sweeping, factless nonsense that so often passes for political debate in America these days. There is even an Idaho angle to the story. According to the Star, former Idaho Congressman Bill Sali is advising the recall proponents, who are - you might wonder why - being lead by a Salt Lake City talk radio host. For his part the sheriff is hardly backing down from his basic contention that the vitriol of current political discourse has consequences. "I'm sure that this demented person (suspect Jared Lee Loughner) didn't do what he did because of Rush Limbaugh, specifically, or Sarah Palin or ... Glenn Beck. But it's a conglomeration. When people hear this vitriol every day, it has some consequences and I think that's how the tea party got so darned angry so fast." What he does know, the sheriff told the Star, "is that Loughner was angry at government and 'I think in his demented mind, he saw her (Giffords) as representing government.'" The interview with the sheriff, printed on February 6, has of this morning drawn 275 on line comments from Arizona Daily Star readers. You can imagine the tone of most of them and a number were apparently so "uncivil" as to be removed by the newspaper. Two things stand out here. First, recalls aren't about removing people from office simply because you disagree with them or with something they've said. Recalls should be reserved for malfeasance and, as the Constitution says about misbehaving public officials, "high crimes and misdemeanors." You find disagreement with a politician, run or vote against them. Sheriff Dupnik has to face the votes again in 2012. He got just over 64% last time and he says he'll probably run again. Have at it. Beat him at the polls, if you can. Second, the intensity surrounding the Arizona sheriff just proves the point that we struggle right now to find a way to disagree with each other while not being totally disagreeable. We simply must get better at this and everyone has a role and a stake. The Christian Science Monitor, in noting Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup's civility initiative with other U.S. Mayors, printed a short piece called "four ways to kick the polarized partisan habit." It's worth a read and a visit to the Public Conversations Project website is worthwhile, as well. I found one of the four rules particularly appropriate: "Fight for Technicolor - Don't reduce everyone and everything to black and white. Stand up for the multicolored reality of yourself and others." Speaking of Technicolor, the Slate website produced a profile of the controversial sheriff early in January. It's worth reading. Here's a key sentence: "a look through Dupnik's past reveals a much more complex figure than his current portrayal as a liberal Democratic crusader." Really. One thing our media often does, and too many public officials perpetuate, is to reduce every issue and every personality to a "black and white, yes and no" equation. In the real world, things can't be done so simply or so surely. The real world - and real people - operate in Technicolor. Black and white, except for the occasional Humphrey Bogart movie, really should be obsolete.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Gipper at 100

Myths are Part of Politics I only had the chance to see Ronald Reagan in the flesh a handful of times. I distinctly remember when he came to Idaho to campaign for then-Rep. Steve Symms in 1980. He had incredible stage presence, a great voice, mannerisms, an almost unprecedented ability to connect with the audience. The Great Communicator. With his 100th birthday this past weekend, the Canonization of Reagan has - perhaps - reached its zenith. Reagan is the one Republican all Republicans can rally to. In his approach to the presidency, he has become - even for Barack Obama - a touchstone, an example of how to use the awesome public powers of the office to move the country, the Congress and the world. It's both good politics and good historical analysis on Obama's part to look to The Gipper for inspiration. In a piece in USA Today, Obama said of Reagan: “At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything." There is a theory among presidential historians that it takes 25 years after a president leaves office to begin to come to grips with the man, the accomplishments and the shortcomings. If that is correct, we're about to have the historical distance to look back on the Reagan Era and make some judgments. As much of the Reagan at 100 reporting has pointed out, much about Reagan is - no nice way to put it - a myth. In 1981 he did push through the greatest tax cut in history to that time, but he also raised taxes 11 times during his presidency. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan's diaries, says: "There's a false mythology out there about Reagan as this conservative president who came in and just cut taxes and trimmed federal spending in a dramatic way. It didn't happen that way. It's false." The Tea Partiers who genuflect at his memory conveniently ignore that the federal deficit ballooned on his watch and the federal government grew. Reagan advocated, passionately advocated, the Star Wars missile defense scheme, but also went to the summit with Gorbachev determined to try to eliminate all nuclear weapons. He pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon after an attack on Marines there and he did trade arms for hostages. In short, the man's record is more complex and ultimately more interesting than the Reagan myths. Myth making in politics is a bipartisan game. Democrats have long clung to their Roosevelt myth, of example. FDR's sunny disposition, great communicator talents and fundamental faith in the American system are the self same attributes most find so endearing about Ronald Reagan. Yet, Roosevelt's sunny personality hid a tough, even mean, streak that played out in his efforts to "purge" the Democratic Party of conservatives in 1938. His reverence for the American system didn't prevent him from trying to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937. If George W. Bush played fast and loose with the truth in the run-up to the Iraq War, FDR did the same in the run-up to World War II. Had Roosevelt's presidency ended after the 1940 election, with the country deprived of his splendid leadership during the war, we might only remember him today as the man whose policies made too little dent in the side of the Great Depression and who blew up his second term trying to "reform" the Supreme Court. Timing counts for a lot in politics. Like FDR, Reagan created and maintained an uncanny ability to shape the symbols and power of the presidency into an American narrative. They both stood for the America of boundless opportunity; the shining city on a hill. They spoke to the aspirations of Americans, never fully achieved, but important nonetheless. They were, in a word, inspirational leaders. It didn't hurt either man's reputation that their presidencies fell between the tenure of other presidents who never seemed to measure up to the job. Both Reagan and Roosevelt share one other trait, I think, that makes them - myths and all - endure. Both were unlikely leaders, neither really born to the success they achieved. Their success was not inevitable. True enough Roosevelt came from great wealth and enjoyed the benefits of a powerful name, but unlike his distant cousin, who also became a great president, Franklin was, in the famous words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, equipped only with "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament." FDR's struggle to overcome polio is a measure of the man's determination and temperament. Reagan rose from Hollywood, B-movie actor to GE pitchman, to Governor of California. As Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of his best lines - lines he practiced and delivered so well - wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "He ran for president four times and lost twice. His 1968 run was a flop—it was too early, as he later admitted, and when it's too early, it never ends well. In 1976 he took on an incumbent Republican president of his own party, and lost primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois (where he'd been born), Massachusetts and Vermont. It was hand-to-hand combat all the way to the convention, where he lost to Gerald Ford. People said he was finished. He roared back in 1980 only to lose Iowa and scramble back in New Hampshire while reorganizing his campaign and firing his top staff. He won the nomination and faced another incumbent president." Reagan, like FDR, had a great sense of humor; something that will get you a long way in life and in politics. Roosevelt could joke about "my little dog Fala" and tweak his political opponents in the process. Noonan recounts a classic Reagan joke, "a man says sympathetically to his friend, 'I'm so sorry your wife ran away with the gardener.' The guy answers, 'It's OK, I was going to fire him anyway.'" There is at least one, big, practical political lesson in the lives of the two men - Reagan and Roosevelt - who more than any others have shaped American politics for the last 75 years. Optimism, charm, humor, the ability to communicate from the head and the heart, and the gravitas of that hard to define quality "leadership" are all attributes we value in friends and family. Big surprise: we reward those same qualities in our politicians. Much of what we think we know about great figures in our history just isn't so, but still the myths survive, even as the complex truth is much more interesting and ultimately more important.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

More Billy Collins

Another wonderful little poem... My lanyard wearing mom was born on this day in 1922. I miss her every day. The Lanyard by Billy Collins The other day I was ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room, moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano, from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly— a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid long thin plastic strips into a lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim, and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard. Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift—not the worn truth that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shoulda Known...

The Mets and Madoff As if you need another reason to dislike the serial Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff, now it turns out the swindler was a New York Mets fan. Figures. According to a lawsuit filed against the Mets' owners, the Wilpon boys and Saul Katz, the team and owners allegedly reaped $300 million in fictitious profits from Madoff's various schemes. I guess in Metsland that's at least enough to buy a journeyman left fielder. As the Wall Street Journal reports, "The suit, which also described a more than 25-year relationship between Mr. Madoff and the co-owners of the Mets, said Messrs. Wilpon, Katz and Madoff served on the boards of the same charities, and had season tickets near one another at Mets games. They traveled together with their wives when the Mets played exhibition games in Japan one year, according to the lawsuit, and Mr. Wilpon even helped Mr. Madoff when he was looking for new office space." In August of 1921, then-Baseball Commissioner Keneshaw Mountain Landis banned for life eight Chicago White Sox ballplayers who had been acquitted in a jury trial where they were accused of throwing the 1919 Major League Baseball World Series. Landis, a federal judge as well as the commissioner, issued a terse statement: "Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will never play professional baseball." Alrighty then. The Mets' owners, as far as we know, didn't undertake to throw games. Why would they, the Mets win so infrequently anyway, but the owners certainly did "sit in confidence" with a bunch of crooks in the person of Bernie Madoff and his crew all the while ignoring warning signs that something wasn't right here. The Mets' best defense, as Buster Olney cracked, may be that "we signed Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo to $60m deals-and WE were supposed to sniff out Ponzi scheme?" Let's call it the stupid rich guy defense. Commissioner Bud Selig, not that he ever would, should move immediately to ban the Met owners. The trial, the attending soap opera, the greed and avarice sure to emerge will, all by itself, be detrimental to the game. Baseball, considering the steroids scandal and the unbelievably slack response to that outrage, could benefit from holding to a higher standard and a higher standard could start with zero tolerance for the owners of a Major League franchise sitting in confidence with one of the greatest crooks in American history.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Stuff Happens

Exceptionalism, Hubris, Cluelessness The protesters in the streets of Cairo could most likely care less about American domestic political debate. They have bigger issues. Still, while the chaos continues to unfold in the streets of our erstwhile ally, it might be worthwhile for those of us watching to undertake some sober reflection of what the likely fall of Mubarak says about American foreign policy. Two seemingly disconnected data points - the latest silly debate over American "exceptionalism" and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's new memoir - are informative launching pads for some of the reflection we need. For a few days after President Obama's State of the Union speech, cable's talking heads were popping off about why the president refused to use the word "exceptionalism." Exceptionalism is the notion that American ideals, ambitions, and commitment to liberty are so unique and so special that naturally the United States has not only the moral authority to lead the world, but the moral responsibility to export those ideals, ambitions and commitments. The president did say that America is “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” And that “America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity.” Some conservatives, aware that Obama's still greatest political vulnerability is his "differentness," have seized on his allegedly tepid embrace of the exceptionalism notion to bash him. Columnist Kathleen Parker captured the essence of the argument in a recent piece when she said: "On the right, the word 'exceptional' - or 'exceptionalism' - lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for 'he's not one of us.' "Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?" My answer, all is not right with the world and the president, while embracing the moral leadership role that should go with the office he holds, tends to have a nuanced view of the world - not black/white, neither uniquely exceptional or standard run of the mill. The president is trying hard, against the last 100 years of history, to pull us back from the kind of exceptional arrogance that once led us into Vietnam and more recently into Iraq. For the exceptional crowd, its impossible to believe that the rest of the world just doesn't get on the with the notion that it is American manifest destiny to lead the world and, when necessary, reshape it our liking. Which brings us to Donald Rumsfeld. The advance press on his new book - it sounds like a standard score settler sure to get him on TV a great deal - seems sure to remind his detractors, including John McCain, of Rummy's fundamental arrogance. The man who brought us such memorable lines as "stuff happens" in response to widespread Iraqi looting after the invasion and "known unknowns" about the non-existing weapons of mass destruction, says he has few regrets about Iraq. Rumsfeld is a metaphor for American foreign policy cluelessness. Not only did he get almost everything wrong about the American invasion of Iraq, he clearly doesn't possess the self reflection gene necessary to learn some of the all-too-obvious lessons. The real known unknown is what America doesn't know - and usually refuses to learn - about the rest of the great world. We never seem to learn the limits to which others in the world are willing to embrace our ideals and follow our lead. We may be repeating this time tested mistake now in Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the volatile Middle East. “We evidently think,” Idaho Sen. Frank Church once said, “that everything which happens abroad is our business…we have plunged into these former colonial regions as though we have been designated on high to act as trustee in bankruptcy for broken empires.” The Middle East is ancient ground. The yoke of British, Ottoman, French and other colonial empires - and what must look to many young Arabs like the new American Empire - hangs uneasily over the region. Young people in Tunisia and Egypt, empowered by access to the Internet and ideas - not always ideas we like, for sure - are demanding change. It is hubris to think that our notions of what makes America exceptional is necessarily going to appeal, or be right, for them. One Middle Eastern analyst, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, says it bluntly: "No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way," he said. "Otherwise, I think we're losing the Arab world." With thousands of our troops spread across the region, with billions lavished on Mubarak for more than 30 years - by one estimate the old boy is worth as much as $70 billion - we're down to being an after thought to the people in the street. Writing for the New York Times, the sagacious Tim Egan, offers some of the best sober reflection: " the Internet age, no authoritarian can keep his own people from knowing the truth," Egan writes. "Millions of Egyptians are disgusted with their leadership. They have hope. They want change. And we should stand with them with the tools of an open society: ideas and technology, and maybe a deft diplomatic nudge. Beyond that, it’s out of American hands." As we cast a very wary eye toward Cairo and beyond, a real question for Americans is whether we can be exceptional enough to understand the limits of our power; whether we can't learn the humbling lesson that our ability to cause other cultures, with different histories, religions and traditions, to embrace our way is exceptionally limited.