Friday, April 8, 2011

New and Improved...

The Johnson Post is moving April 11th to

Come on over and thanks for reading!

Marc Johnson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Survey Says

Don't Know Much About...Us I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount - Europe several times, South America, Canada - and after every trip I've returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don't know much about the rest of the world. I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn't find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister - Stephen Harper - or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto. Now it turns out we don't know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly. The questions aren't exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention? Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn't name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife's name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don't ask what the Federalist Papers were. I've railed in this space in the past about America's historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we "fought" the Cold War. This isn't funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, "we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn't knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough - as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear - about our federal government and our political system. It's impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don't touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn't a strategy for a great country.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Guns and Porn, Oh My

Solutions in Search of a Problem The Idaho Senate will this week - choose your metaphor - cock the hammer, reload or take aim at the increasingly controversial issue of guns on the state's college campuses. The House has already passed the legislation, the Senate may think twice. Boise State University, the largest Idaho school, where football tailgate parties are arguably even more popular than guns. has played the economic card by raising concerns that events on the campus may be impacted by a proposed state law allowing students, faculty too, to pack a piece to a concert, football game or poetry reading, not to mention biology class. Idaho is racing Texas to see which state can get the campus gun toting legislation in place first. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he'll sign legislation working its way through, as Molly Ivins used to say, the Texas Leg. Perry is the same governor who suggested a while back that the federal stimulus legislation gives Texas a right to consider secession. Fully armed obviously. The Los Angeles Times visited the huge University of Texas campus in Austin recently, a place with an awful history of gun violence, and found a mixed reception for the campus gun legislation. In 1966 a student gunman at UT climbed to the top of the campus clock tower and systematically killed 14 people. Ancient history, I guess, in an age when proponents of such legislation argue that having more guns on campus will actually improve safety. One Texas professor told the Times he welcomed the proposed gun law and said he'd definitely consider taking his piece to class with him if it passes. Not a professor to argue with about a grade, I suppose. At another Texas school, Sam Houston State, a new research project found considerably less support among students. On a scale of zero being not comfortable at all and 100 being as comfortable as you can get, the Sam Houston students clocked in - or is it Glocked in - at 39. A similar survey at a Washington school produced a 33 comfort score. May just be that the students who are, pardon the expression, the target of this campus safety initiative aren't feeling all that comfortable about how safe they'll be in English 101. It used to be all you had to worry about was staying awake in class or understanding Milton. In times of severe economic turmoil like those faced in Idaho and most other states at the moment, I've noticed a curious legislative phenomenon. With limited ability for legislators to think big about new buildings or highways, they tend to find solutions to problems that may not really exist. The gun legislation, stoked by the National Rifle Association in Idaho, Texas and a dozen other states, seems to fall in that category. College administrators, the State Board of Education and law enforcement leaders - those closest to the vibe on a campus - are universally opposed to the gun legislation that has only come forward because, well, the NRA says its needed to protect our Second Amendment rights. As one Texas student said, college is already stressful enough, why add the prospect for even more worry by affirmatively introducing guns to the campus scene? State Representative Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise said it pretty well: "One can only imagine a college classroom or a campus administrative situation where heated arguments about strongly held political beliefs or disputes about grades or even parking issues result in the use of a concealed weapon." Meanwhile, Idaho legislators are also debating a bill to require more actions from public libraries to filter content on computers that library patrons - as in the tax paying public - utilize in vast numbers every day. Another solution in search of a problem. Full disclosure, I am currently the president of the Boise Public Library Board, and we have long had in place a perfectly sensible policy about computer use. If a parent is concerned that a youngster might go where they shouldn't on the Internet, we take steps to ensure that won't happen. But, we also stay away from being the Internet nanny for adults who presumably are smart enough to make their own decisions about how to use a computer. Both these pieces of legislation are in the one-size-fits-all category of legislating. Not content to leave it to local library boards in individual Idaho communities to figure out the best approach in their neighborhoods and unwilling to trust a college president in Twin Falls or Moscow to know enough about their campus environment to keep them as safe as possible, legislative solutions must be found to non-existent problems. Guns and computers. Strange that in a largely educational environment - a college campus and a public library - some legislators want virtually unlimited access to one and to substantially limit access to the other.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hat is Back...

Adjustment Bureau for Headware I used to think it old fashioned that my dad always wore a hat. He had a gray one, a brown one, I think, and I vaguely remember a dapper looking summertime straw hat. I never remember seeing him in a cap, but hardly ever remember him not wearing a hat. Dad would be happy to know that hats are reportedly back in style and I find I'm now just as old fashioned with my hats as I once thought him to be with his. The new movie, The Adjustment Bureau, some say, is popular culture proof that the hat is back. Maybe. I think Matt Damon looks pretty good in a hat, but have been told his hat is better than the movie. You can Google men's hats and find a thousand places to buy them on the Internet. My favorite store is John Helmer in Portland. Great hats. I once bought a hat - a brown Steton "Gun Club" model - at a hat shop in Milwaukee called Jac Donges Hats and Gloves. I still have the hat, but sadly Jac's place is now a Subway shop. Bogart wore hats and still got the girl except when he let her go. Al Capone deserved a black one, but his were often white - the gangster fedora. Don Draper, the mysterious ad man on Mad Men, favors the narrow brim job that sits high on his head. Johnny Depp wears a hat once in a while and looks good, even to guys. I have a picture hanging in my office of Teddy Roosevelt's visit to Sandpoint, Idaho. Every man in the photo, and there are a lot of them, has a hat, Teddy included. Franklin Roosevelt wore hats and Harry Truman, too. John Kennedy reportedly didn't like hats, almost refused to wear one and when you see JFK with a hat he's often holding it not wearing it. Date the demise of the snap brim to Camelot. Hats made a brief return under Lyndon Johnson, but folks often made fun of his Stetson "Open Road" model. I liked it. May get one of those one day. So, back to my hat wearing father. I cherish a picture of him taken in about 1940, I guess. He's wearing a hat, Bogart-like, big smile on his face (hats do that) and standing in front a very shiny Model A Ford. I like to think he was about to get in that Ford, pick up mom and take her dancing. If I had a Model A Ford, I'd wear one of my hats while driving it. Like father, like son. Maybe hats are back. But, then again, maybe they never really go out of style. Neil Steinberg wrote a book about all this. He dealt with the Kennedy hat issue and argued that hats went out in the 1960's when younger guys decided not to conform with the styles of the older generation. What goes around comes around, they say, and today wearing a hat has become a mark of non-conformance. Maybe you just need to be a little old fashioned, an individualist, to wear one these days. You should try it. Just take it off in a elevator, especially if a lady comes on board. Touch the brim to acknowledge a friend or someone you would like to be a friend and, like Bogart, maybe a Lauren Bacall look-alike will find you charming, witty and worthy of wearing a hat so you can doff it to her. It couldn't hurt.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Another War

The No Debate No Fly Zone The truly amazing thing about the "no fly zone" policy adopted over the last few days by the United States and the United Nations is not that it will be imposed on Gaddafi's Libya, but rather that it was done with virtually no domestic debate, no Congressional action and little effort to bring the American public along. I know it has become a political non-issue, a quaint detail of American history, but Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says: "Congress shall have the declare war..." Make no mistake we are going to war with Libya. The American policeman is walking the Middle East beat, again. Moreover we are headed into another open-ended, frightfully expensive engagement with scarcely any attempt to define the short, let alone long-term objectives. Set aside for the moment the legitimate debate over whether the "no fly zone" strategy actually works. Might it be appropriate for the president and the Congress to define, in a good deal more detail, just what we hope to accomplish by engaging in a shooting war in Libya. American anti-terrorism experts are already warning that Gaddafi is entirely capable of retaliating with some non-conventional response - read terror attack - while we spend an estimated $100 to $300 million a week to try and use air power to enforce order on the ground in Libya. It's estimated that the initial attack on Libya's command and control capabilities could cost a billion dollars. Meanwhile, the Congress is virtually paralyzed in a budget debate that may well shut down the federal government in three weeks. We'll spend millions to enforce a UN resolution on Libya with no debate, while the Congress runs the government by continuing resolution and bogs down in a completely partisan argument over funding laughably small budget lines for National Public Radio and the National Weather Service. While the Obama Administration can claim an international consensus to use force against Gaddafi's military, only one guess is required in the game who will pay most of the cost. The world's greatest deliberative body - the U.S. Senate, where foreign policy used to be a regular concern - can find plenty of time for posturing over who is responsible for the budget deadlock, but couldn't find even 15 minutes to debate whether the country ought to send more brave, young Americans into another desert war. We can all lament the disaster of the Libyan nut job waging war on his own people, but since we've equipped Arab air forces from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Jordan, why not let the vaunted Arab League deal with one of their own? Have we no leverage over the King of Jordan or the princes of Arabia? The most sensible voice in the administration, soon to be gone Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may have made his concerns about the "no fly" strategy know too early, while the rest of the administration struggled to figure out a response. "Let's call a spade a spade," Gates said earlier in March, "a no fly zone begins with an attack on Libya." He called it a "big operation in a big country" and warned of the unknown unintended consequences of yet more American military engagement in a Middle Eastern country. We are left to hope that in a week or two no American carrier pilot is sitting in Gaddafi's custody after being shot down attempting to enforce a no fly zone with no defined objective, no end date and no obvious concern about the human and financial the United States. The United States time and again undertakes military action with the expectation that it will be short, painless and sanitary and that the outcome will be entirely to our liking. Funny thing: our wars never seems to work out the way we envision them.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Great War

It Didn't End Anything... The "war to end all wars" didn't. In fact the case can be persuasively made that what before World War II was commonly called "the great war" really began a vicious spiral of nearly continuous war, killing and destruction that made the 20th Century the most violent century. I got to thinking about this after reading a moving tribute in the Washington Post this week to the last American veteran of the great war, Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles died recently at the ripe old age of 110. What things he saw in his long life. Paul Duggan's Post story made the point that Buckles, a West Virginia boy, was among the nearly 5 million Americans who were in uniform in 1917 and 1918. More than 116,000 of them died. Frank was the last one; a link in a now broken chain back to a time when there was no GI Bill, virtually no health care for returning doughboys and little acknowledgment from either the government or the public. By 1930 the war was thought by many in the United States to have been a great mistake, a fight not ours that had scarred - and scared - a generation. Isolationism dominated American foreign policy and the U.S. Senate even investigated the "merchants of death," who many thought had profited from the wartime sale of American munitions. Today, its the World War II "greatest generation" that gets the attention, but it was the war Frank Buckles and his generation fought that really defined the 20th Century. The war now mostly relegated to the dusty back shelf of American history still echoes down to us today in so many ways. The modern map of Europe and the Middle East is the result of that war. We now have a modern democracy and a NATO ally in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ended with the war. The last Russian Tsar was ushered out and Lenin and eventually Stalin ushered in as a result of that war. The war brought an end to emperors in Germany and Austria-Hungary and made France and Britain fearful of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but even more fearful of another European war. An Austrian corporal injured in a gas attack in that war, used the defeat of Germany and its allies as a springboard to create what became the horrors of Nazism. Winston Churchill knew both glory and defeat in the great war and at its end helped invent the country where today American soldiers still try to create a democracy. Iraq, born of the great war and always an unnatural nation, has long been a violent and troubled place. Woodrow Wilson, a prickly idealist about many things, thought the world - and his own nation - would study the horrors of the trenches, the gas attacks, the vast machine gun slaughter, and conclude that nations must band together to ensure a lasting peace. By 1920, Wilson couldn't get the U.S. Senate to support his grand ambition of a League of Nations. By 1931, Japan had invade Manchuria, Hitler and his followers where marching in the streets of Bavaria and Mussolini was planning a "new Roman Empire" that would begin with the conquest of Ethiopia. By 1939, barely 20 years after the war to end all wars had sputtered to a uneasy conclusion in muddy fields in France, most of the world was at war again. World War I produced Captain Harry Truman, who served in France, and Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower, who never got out of the country. George Patton saw action as the first U.S. tank commander in France and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney were both ambulance drivers. Hermann Goering learned most of what he needed to know to command the German Luftwaffe as a World War I fighter pilot. It was Frank Buckles's fate to be the last solider of the great war. We should remember him for what he did and remember his war for what it did, too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Union Way

The Great Battle When the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa led the trade union movement in Poland in the 1980's, he and his movement - Solidarity - were the toast of the West. The Polish Pope received him, Ronald Reagan praised him, the Nobel Committee awarded him. Imagine. Such tributes for a union movement and its leader that, not incidentally, brought down a Communist government. When young people took to the streets of Cairo recently, commentators noted that Egypt lacks many of the institutions that contribute to a stable democratic society, including having no tradition of unions to represent workers, advocate for better working conditions and, by definition, create a middle class that works. Ironically, the very conservative National Review - usually no friend of unions in the United States - celebrates the impact of new "freedom" for trade unions in the Arab world. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that state's GOP majority hav yet to explain why ending collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, particularly teachers, helps improve classroom learning or delivery of public services in the land of the Packers. Same goes for Idaho's leaders who have gone down the same path, ending collective bargaining for educators. All this begs a question: Why do we believe a union movement that helps foster true democracy in eastern Europe or the Middle East somehow cuts against the American way here at home? The answer is pretty simply: politics. You can date the demise of the Democratic Party in Idaho, for example, to the legislature's passage, after years of trying, of right to work legislation in 1986. The Idaho AFL-CIO, never huge in numbers, had nonetheless traditionally been a force in the state's politics helping fuel the rise of successful political careers for guys like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus. Right to work started the decline of labor involvement and effectiveness in the state's politics that continues to this day. While recent polling indicates that most Americans reject the kind of efforts aimed at organized public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there is little doubt that organized labor has failed to find a message and articulate an appeal that begins to explain to millions of non-union American workers why unions are important in Warsaw, as well as in Madison and Boise. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg may have identified one line of argument. He wrote recently: "Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all.” I'm not sure I understand all the reasons, but it also cannot be denied that while organized labor has lost membership year-by-year since the 1950's, America's basic manufacturing infrastructure has also declined at the same time and at a worrying pace. Sadly, I think, the kind of jobs that once employed blue collar guys who carried a lunch bucket to work are not nearly as important to the American economy as they once, and not that long ago, were. The history of organized labor in America is in the main a story of building a sustainable middle class; jobs for moms and dads with wages that can support a family, pay a mortgage and save a few bucks to send the kids to college. Have there been excesses during the up and down American labor story, of course. Violence was once a routine part of the unavoidable tensions between management and workers. But where unions remain a force today, as in the rehabilitation of Michigan's automobile industry, hard headed negotiations - and big concessions - have replaced the sit down strikes that crippled the auto industry in the 1930's. The challenge to organized labor now, as it faces fresh assaults across the board, is to convince more Americans that banding together and advocating a position with your employer isn't un-American, but actually a vital part of a sustainable democracy. Andy Stern, one of the more forward-looking labor leaders in the country before his retirement, recently gave a fascinating interview to the Washington Post. Here is one line from Stern's interview that pretty well sums up the challenge organize labor faces: "We [organized labor] need an ideology based around working with employers to build skills in our workers, to train them for success. That message and approach can attract different people than the 'we need to stand up for the working class!' approach. That approach is about conflict, and a lot of people don’t want more conflict." True, but Americans do want good, middle class jobs. If a vital, constructive union movement is good enough for democratic Poland or for the democratic aspirations of Egypt, maybe it could work again here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Tucson...Two Months On This city in the Sonoran Desert has been our adopted "second city" now for more than ten years. We have come to love the place, particularly this time of year. The near arrival of spring brings a huge variety of life to the desert. The birds start talking at first light, the cool mornings give way to progressively warmer days until, as the incredible pink sunsets appear in the darkening, brilliant blue sky, the desert night cools again and one of the greatest star shows anywhere helps remind us how insignificant we are in the grand scheme. The third annual Tucson Festival of Books has been dominating the city this weekend, particularly the campus of the University of Arizona. Thousands flocked to the campus yesterday to wander among booths, listen to music and celebrate books with a long list of good writers. I listened to writer Jonathan Eig talk about his latest book on the Chicago mobster Al Capone. As a baseball fan, I've admired and enjoyed Eig's books on Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. He had a big crowd in a big tent laughing yesterday as he disposed of a few myths about Big Al. Capone didn't order the St. Valentine's Day massacre, for instance, and Eliot Ness had almost nothing to do with bringing Capone to justice. More plausibly, Capone got crosswise with a smart U.S. Attorney. Frank DeFord held forth, as did J.A. Jance and Douglas Brinkley. I'm looking forward to seeing a talented historian Annette Gordon-Reed later today and one of my historian heroes, Robert Utley. NPR's Scott Simon moderated a fascinating panel with Luis Alberto Urrea - his book The Devil's Highway is a chilling and exceeding well-crafted account of human trafficking along the U.S. - Mexican border - and T. Jefferson Parker, a novelist who writes about the drugs, money and guns that increasingly define our relationship with Mexico. Simon seemed momentarily taken aback when a questioneer thanked him for his sensitive and knowing reporting in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and so many others on January 8. The big crowd in the UA Student Union applauded the remark and the conversation returned to the nature of the misunderstood story playing out daily in the borderlands. Still, a little over two months on from the shootings, the healing here comes slowly and one gets the impression that a whole city is still processing, reflecting, mourning and trying to move ahead. Six white crosses still sit on the ground across the street from the Safeway at Ina and Oracle where Gifford was meeting constituents on January 8. There was a big benefit concert this week to raise money to further the healing. A Gifford's aide, Ron Barber, organized a fund for that purpose and a big car dealer and Republican businessman who had supported Gifford's opponent last year made a large donation. The UA has launched an institute devoted to civility and a Gifford's intern-turned-hero, Daniel Hernandez, announced this week that he'll run for student body president at the University. And, of course, the updates on the Congressman's condition dominated the news here and got big play everywhere. Life goes on. The big book festival this weekend made me reflect anew on the power of stories in the hands of gifted storytellers to help us make sense of an often senseless world. Artists simply help us live and cope. Luis Urrea, a great and gifted writer who straddles at least two cultures, gave me a new mantra while he was talking with Scott Simon. Urrea says he tells his writing students that every day is Christmas or their birthday, they just need to be open to the gifts - mostly little tiny gifts - that come their way every day. Tucson is finding its way two months on by finding and enjoying the little gifts that come its way every day.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Reporter's Reporter

David Broder, 1929 - 2011 In the last few years it became "inside the beltway" sport for some to denigrate the kind of journalism that Dave Broder practiced for so long from his lofty perch at the Washington Post. To his few critics, Broder, who died on Wednesday at age 81, was old school, a guy interested in the substance of politics, not the cynicism, someone who actually believed that politicians could be motivated by something other than self-interest. Worst of all, to some, Broder was a model of civility; judicious with his judgments, slow to pull the trigger of blame. For my money, he was the gold standard, the dean, the kind of reporter who is rapidly disappearing from the political beat, or any other beat. Broder was to the soles of his well-worn shoes a reporter, not a pontificator. He was criticized by some for repeating the conventional wisdom on D.C., but by any measure of the work that journalist do, he was a calm, reasoned, informed, non-cynical voice that both tried to understand politics and not debase politicians. Dave Broder was a nice guy in what is often a cutthroat business. I met him once and spent a day with him at an Andrus Center conference in Boise a number of years ago. That forum, organized with the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, focused on politics, the press and the law in the post-9-11 world. Well into his 70's, Broder consented to fly across the country and be part of a discussion that I moderated featuring judges, lawyers and journalists. He provided no bombast, just perspective. No harsh criticism of the political process, but rather understanding informed by the belief that most of the time people in public life try, as they see it, to do the right thing. Many of the tributes to Broder, and there will be many over the next few days, will mention his penchant for going door-to-door to talk to real voters about politics. The tributes will stress his sensitivity, even his compassion for the mighty who tumble from great power and his fundamental decency and gentlemanly nature. All true. New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg admits to criticizing Broder for his repeating of the conventional Washington wisdom, but then recounts a charming story of Broder impressing the devil out of Hertzberg's fawning mother. Not every good reporter is a hit-headed Carl Bernstein. Thank goodness there has been room for a long, long time for a decent and discerning Dave Broder. I connived to sit next to Broder at dinner after a long day at that Andrus Center conference. We'd spent the day discussing and debating how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would change American politics, law and the press. I wanted to hear him hold forth on Washington, but he kept gently turning the conversation local. Always the reporter, he wanted to know what was going on in Idaho. Midway through dinner, he pulled out one of those uniquely shaped reporter's notebooks and starting taking notes. I was dumbfounded. Dave Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, thought I had something worth recording in his notebook. If I hadn't already liked the guy, that would have sealed the deal. But, most importantly, he really did want to know. He was a reporter. Always looking for information, opinions, insight. Writing in the Post yesterday, Robert Kaiser said it well: "In a business dominated by hard-driving egos, Broder was an anomaly: a Midwestern gentleman, gentle in manner, always eager to help fellow reporters and to preserve the reputation of his newspaper. His standards never slipped, save perhaps when yielding to his perennially unfulfilled dreams for his beloved Chicago Cubs." One of the reasons our politics has assumed such a hard and nasty edge relates directly to the hard and nasty approach of too many opinion-driven news organizations and the people who work for them. Dave Broder, even when criticized, refused to succumb to the nasty and cynical. He uplifted his craft and, as a result, uplifted those he covered. I've often thought since that dinner in Boise back in 2003 that Dave Broder would have been welcome on that particular night at any Georgetown salon, Washington embassy or U.S. Senator's dinner table. He chose to come to Boise. He wanted to know what was happening out here. He was curious and interested. He was a real reporter. At that Andrus Center conference Broder was asked what responsibility the press has to protect secrets that might impact national security. It was the time when then CIA officer Valerie Plame had been publicly identified and her cover blown thanks to political leaks and press reports. Broder warned the questioner that he was going to get a longer answer than he might want and then proceed to say, with nuance and insight, that it is the government's responsibility to protect its secrets. The press has another job. The job of the press is to report what is going on, he said, what is important. The government tries to protect secrets, the press reports news. Old school, indeed. If you don't believe Dave Broder was one-of-a-kind, try to think of anyone in journalism today who can now inherit his unique role. He was the dean, maybe the last of a breed. I'm not sure he ever revisited those notes he took when we were talking during dinner, but he did write it down. I'll remember that - and Dave Broder - for a long, long time. Good guy, terrific journalist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Failing at Politics and Policy

Expelled from Politics On Tuesday, the Idaho House approved the most political piece of State Superintendent Tom Luna's "education reform" effort and sent it on to receive a sure signature from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Idahoans who care about schools - and politics - may look back on the vote to strip collective bargaining rights from the state's teachers and make tenure more tenuous for new teachers as a true watershed moment. Like the great Jack Dempsey, knocked out of the ring in a 1923 title fight, the Idaho Education Association's once-powerful role in the state's politics has been knocked for a loop, perhaps never to recover. Dempsey somehow pulled himself back in the ring against Luis Firpo and eventually won his famous fight. The IEA has rarely demonstrated that kind of agility. It seems unfair to kick someone when they're down, but the reality in these events is obvious, just as the politics is raw. The IEA has failed at both politics and policy and when the legislative moment of reckoning arrived in 2011, the state's teachers were vilified, marginalized and defeated badly. This has been a long time coming. Over the last 15 years, as Idaho's politics has shifted dramatically, the IEA has clung to an old and outdated strategy. Rather than try to elect allies to the legislature or cultivate those already there, the teachers have seemed to focus, without success, on top of the ticket races like governor and state superintendent. The folly of the approach was well documented in a good piece of reporting recently by the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey. Popkey got the quote of the current legislative session out of former Democratic State Sen. Brandon Durst who complained about IEA's focus on thwarting Luna's re-election bid rather than winning a handful of potentially decisive legislative elections, his included. “They’re my friends, so let me characterize it a little bit more diplomatically," Durst told Popkey. "They blew it. Their decision to put all of their resources, not just financial but also human resources, behind [Luna's] campaign and his campaign alone, really hurt races down the ticket.” But this failure of political strategy goes deeper than misfiring in one election cycle. The IEA has something like 13,000 members in every corner of Idaho. That represents a grassroots organization that most interest groups would kill for, yet the teachers seem not to have been able to really mobilize these local foot soldiers and use them to build broader coalitions. This represent a failure of strategy that ignores a fundamental tenet of politics at every level: organize, organize, organize. At the same time, Idaho's teachers have become a punchline and a punching bag for what's wrong with education. Teachers have become the Idaho equivalent of the old story that everyone hates the U.S. Congress, but most of us still like our own Congressman. Most Idahoans like the teacher who helps educate their kids, they have just come to hate the teachers union. At the risk of blaming the victim, IEA must shoulder a good deal of the blame for letting this damaging perception take root. The teachers, sorry to say, didn't fight back effectively against the ceaseless drumbeat that they are a major part of the problem with education. Which bring us to policy. Whether its fair or not, perception is reality in politics and the perception hangs that teachers have not engaged constructively in the raging debate over why our education system fails to meet almost everyone's expectations. Playing defense all the time is not a political strategy and it has become for the teachers a recipe to become politically marginalized. Successful movements - and interest groups - eventually need to stand for something, educate folks about the wisdom of the position and build broad support. I'm guess that even most of their supporters in the Idaho Legislature really don't understand the IEA's policy agenda, assuming there is one. IEA's leadership justifiably complains about not being at the table when Luna's reform agenda was hatched, but the teachers also had a chance to build their own policy table and haven't. Unfortunately, this is not just an Idaho-based failure, but a broader national failing of professional teacher organizations. Look no farther than Wisconsin or Ohio for proof. At the IEA website, there is a link called "Why Politics?" A click at the link takes you to a short page that explains that the organization is involved in politics because decisions in Idaho and Washington, D.C. effect teachers. Then there is this sentence: "Time and again, over the last century (emphasis added) IEA members have won major victories to both defend and set new standards for public education in Idaho." It's hard to remember in this century when Idaho teachers won a major or even minor victory. It may be a long time - if ever - before that happens again. If it ever happens again, it will be because Idaho's worn down and increasingly hard pressed teachers, and the organization that represents them, adopts a real political strategy that can help them climb back into the ring.